The nonsequential current history of good music in New York continues today with Magges, who played a marathon show in lovely, tree-lined, well-shaded Athens Square Park in Astoria Tuesday night. “No Greek disco….only the music we grew up with, and love,” explained bandleader/electric bouzouki virtuoso Kyriakos Metaxas. The son of Evangelos Metaxas of the popular Trio Bel Canto, he’s keeping a legacy alive with this group, whose name is Greek slang for “bad guys” or “cool cats.” Magges’ website calls their repertoire “country music from another country.” This time out, the well-loved Greek-American band mixed up long medleys of folk tunes, hits from the 60s and ended with a long set of rembetiko, or as Metaxas put it, “Greek blues,” the haunting Middle Eastern-flavored, mostly minor-key songs from the underground resistance against the dictatorship of the 1930s and 40s, which was the stuff that resonated most intensely with the crowd. Since this was a public park, they didn’t bring along the ouzo that they share with the crowd at rock clubs. But the music was no less intense, and drew a similarly ecstatic reaction from the crowd. Along with the bouzoukis of Metaxas and Nick Mandoukos, the ubiquitously brilliant Susan Mitchell played violin alongside equally ubiquitous and brilliant acoustic guitarist Steve Antonakos (who didn’t take any of his famous solos), plus Ken Forrest on upright bass and Spiros Edgos on drums.
It was kind of funny how although a lot of the music had an American rock influence, the songs that rocked the hardest were the most indelibly Greek-flavored ones. They opened with a swaying, minor-key anthem with a gypsy-rock feel, Mitchell’s violin textures stark beneath the spiky, richly intertwined harmonies of the two bouzoukis. She took the first of several shivery microtonal solos on the second one after one by Metaxas, over a stately, almost martial groove; then they segued into a tangoish number with hauntingly gorgeous Arabic-tinged modes. A lively, sprightly Macedonian-style dance; a bubbly, upbeat tune with the bouzoukis leapfrogging the highest frets and what sounded like a warier, more angst-driven version of the same song followed.
Mitchell gave a psychedelic folk number from the 60s a chamber-pop feel with layers of lush atmospherics as the bouzoukis traded rapidfire licks. Like another song later in the set, it could have been a cumbia if they’d slowed it down a little: despite being from the other side of the globe, it sounded a lot like the Peruvian surf rock of Chicha Libre or Los Destellos. They slowed it down with a swaying Mediterranean ballad, then played a gypsy cimbalom tune on the bouzoukis and brought back the cumbia-ish bounce. Then they went into the rembetiko, which is when the dancing, and several spontaneous singalongs and clapalongs emerged throughout the crowd. Mataxas opened the first tune with a long, ominous solo taqsim, the rest of the band following him into the shadows, where they stayed for most of the rest of the evening. Suspenseful Arabic scales pulsed and then soared over rhythms that varied from slinky to martial to defiantly exuberant. One was a dead ringer for the French Revolutionary anthem Les Partisans; the single best song of the night was the next-to-last one, a furtive, chillingly apprehensive theme that paired off Mitchell’s violin against a plaintive thicket of Middle Eastern melody ringing and clanking from the strings of the bouzoukis. Magges have a brand-new album out simply titled 12 Tragouthia [12 Songs]; watch this space for upcoming NYC dates, whether indoors or out. And fans of Italian folk music can check out the weekly Wednesday 7 PM series of concerts here that continue through August 29.