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Patti Smith Plays Prophetic Powerpop in Central Park

Have you seen the anti-discrimination signs? They’re popping up in the windows of small businesses all over town. Even on the conformist-AF Upper West Side.

“We shall live again,” Patti Smith intoned to start her Central Park show last night. And encored with People Have the Power. There’s a sea change going on.

Smith’s show had been moved abruptly from the expansive Rumsey Playfield lawn to the much smaller Summerstage arena space. Set time had also been changed: she hit the stage sometime after 8. Likewise, if Antibalas played the park on Saturday, the time and venue had been changed as well. Apologies to readers of the live music calendar here who might have been led astray – some of those listings date back to when those shows were first announced.

Constantly flipping the script is a hallmark of abusive relationships, whether between a couple, parents and children, or on a societal scale. You do the math.

There was another odd kind of arithmetic at play here. Before the lockdown, Smith would routinely sell out a weeklong year-end stand at Bowery Ballroom, at outrageous prices. This show was free. Yet the arena never reached capacity. What’s more, a steady trickle of concertgoers slowly – s l o w l y – being let in by security was matched by twice as many people traipsing out, beginning at the start of the show. And although the party on the slope out behind the space was much more lively, much of Smith’s diehard fanbase had clearly stayed away.

That’s because proof of being part of a lethal injection campaign, which completely stalled out several weeks ago, was required for entry. Europeans come out in the millions to protest fascist takeovers. Australians bust through police barricades. Americans just stand firm and wait it out.

Smith’s set went on for short of an hour. Opening with Ghost Dance was characteristic of this ageless sage, who shows no sign of slowing down. This was the powerpop set: rather than pouncing on the syncopation on the chorus of Pissing in a River, she and the band motored through the changes with a lingering burn.

Although there were quiet moments – it was impossible to hear any of Smith’s poetry, or her remarks to the crowd from outside the space – most of the material was backbeat rock hits, starting with Dancing Barefoot and continuing with Because the Night. Lenny Kaye limited his lead guitar pyrotechnics to a couple of blue-flame solos, moving around edgily against a resonating string, raga style. Speaking of ragas, the night’s longest interlude was a mostly acoustic, Indian-flavored jam which ended with Smith roaring that “The future is NOW!”

Bassist Tony Shanahan’s soaring, melodic lines were serendipitously high in the mix, most enjoyably in his reggae leads in Ain’t It Strange. From there on, it was all rock, beginning with a stripped-down cover of the Stones’ I’m Free wrapped around a verse of Take a Walk on the Wild Side – subtext, anyone? An assertive bit of Horses set up a steady, resolute G-l-o-r-i-a. And soon afterward, it was over. “Patti Smith! A full moon!” a pretty blonde woman enthused to a bearded man on the hill behind the space. “She picked the right night!” he grinned back. Both were off by a day – the full moon is tonight.

East Village Free Jazz Pioneers Celebrate the Cutting Edge on Their Home Turf

Francisco Mela has been a prime mover in the New York free jazz scene for decades. And free improvisation remains one of the East Village’s most durably entrenched musical demimondes. So it only makes sense that he would be part of this year’s LUNGS festival. He’s playing with a killer trio including tenor saxophonists Steve Wirts and George Garzone at 3 PM on Sept 25 at the 11BC Garden on 11th St between Ave. B and C.

Mela’s latest release in a career that only gets more and more prolific is Music Frees Our Souls, a trio set with two longtime collaborators, bassist William Parker and pianist Matthew Shipp, dedicated to the late, great McCoy Tyner and streaming at Bandcamp.

Mela and Parker quickly build a floating swing for Shipp to color in the epic, twenty-minute first track, Light of Mind, opening with insistent variations around a center. The conversationality of the trio immediately makes itself known when Shipp hits his first big, stabbing peak, and the bass and drums are right there with him. From there the variations range from stern and insistent to scrambles in the upper registers. Shipp limits his emulation of Tyner to frequent stormy lower lefthand intensity. When Mela gets the pot boiling, the other two guys punch in hard with a modal bristle, a feeling that persists in the lulls. Shipp’s stygian, regal exit is spot-on beyond words.

Track two, Dark Light, is much briefer and has more spacious, lingering moments and judicious chordal work from Parker. This being Mela’s session, he opens the last number with an amusing solo that hints at oldschool disco before he expands outward. Who would have expected a salsa woodblock beat over Shipp’s flurries and Parker’s stabbing polyrhythms? The triangulation is a little looser here, everybody on a longer rhythmic leash, although Mela and Parker seemed to be joined closer to the hip. The point where the bass signals a creepily twinkling Twilight Zone transmission from Shipp will give you goosebumps.

Who needs jazz clubs with owners too cowardly and shortsighted to stand up to apartheid orders from the Mayor’s office when we have musicians of this caliber playing outdoors? No doubt somewhere McCoy Tyner is smiling.

Catchy, Quirky High Plains Rockers Make a Long-Overdue Live Recording

We All Have Hooks For Hands are a South Dakota institution. The Sioux Falls band have two albums and a single up at their Bandcamp page. Their most recent release is the Mosquito ep, from 2019, which has both slow and fast, catchy, post-Velvets style tunesmithing (think Jesus & Mary Chain at the midpoint of their usual foggy gloom) along with a scruffy retro soul tune in the same vein as the Get Up or the Brooklyn What.

The group have a sense of humor – they called their 2018 album Bat Out of Hell II. That one’s closer to Supergrass or Babyshambles’ roughhewn newschool garage rock, with quirky allusions to the Cure at their mid 80s poppiest. plus one number that harkens back to the group’s earlier Manchester influences. Some of the songs get an extra jolt of adrenaline, or atmospherics, when keyboardist Dave Lethcoe switches to trumpet.

For fans in the area, they have an especially interesting gig coming up. They’re recording a live webcast on Sept 25 at 4 PM at the White Walls Sessions studio, on the lower level of the Last Stop CD Shop, 2121 E. 10th St. in Sioux Falls; cover is $5. Customers can enter through the Last Stop shop entrance. Since this is a live recording, audience members need to be on time and pay attention to the “on air” light, which signals when it’s time to be quiet so the band can get a good recording.

In keeping with this week’s ongoing project here, if New York venues are weaponized against those of us who won’t get on the fast track to slavery with the Mayor’s blockchain-based spyware, that means it’s time to look elsewhere. And where better to look than a free state like South Dakota? Who knew that starting in 2020, South Dakota would be kicking New York’s ass in terms of support for the arts, and the people who support them?

A Free Outdoor Show From Eclectically-Inspired Trumpeter Wayne Tucker

Wayne Tucker is known for his electrifying performances as a lead trumpeter in various jazz situations. And before the lockdown, he got around a lot. For a couple of years, he was the not-so-secret weapon in feral, high-voltage Ethiopian jamband Anbessa Orchestra, whose small-club gigs in Park Slope in the late teens are legendary. This blog covered one of them back in 2016, but they played shows after that which were even more spectacular.

For those who’ve seen Tucker raise the rafters, it might come as some surprise that he has a much mellower side. This past spring he was one of the first jazz artists to get back to playing publicly announced gigs, leading a quartet up on a little hill just off Central Park West back in early May. The show was part of photographer Jimmy Katz‘s nonprofit series, which turned out to be a lifesaver for musicians starved for money and for audiences starved for music.

The sky may have been ominous that Sunday afternoon, but the music was balmy. Tucker and the band’s tenor saxophonist played calm, airy exchanges and harmonies over a diverse series of rhythms, with tinges of Afrobeat, salsa and bossa nova. Tucker’s latest album goes in a completely different direction, into trippy, hip hop-inspired corporate urban pop. You can find out which side he wants to have fun with – maybe, all of them – at his gig on Sept 21 at noon at the little pedestrian plaza at Pearl and Willoughby in downtown Brooklyn. It’s about equidistant from the 2/4/R Borough Hall station and the F train at Jay St.

One of the Great Voices of the Black Hills

Singer Elisabeth Hunstad makes her living on the road throughout the northern plains states. She’s best known for her searing, powerful high soprano – just listen to her blast through Respect, where she manages not only to hold her own with the Aretha original, but also to put her own grit and defiance into it. Every woman who’s ever picked up a mic has tried that song; most give up.

Hunstad’s voice is chameleonic yet completely original. She can bring to mind Aretha one minute, Dolly Parton the next. She comes out of a jazz background, but has drifted further toward soul music in the last couple of years. Her piano work is similarly eclectic, ranging from gospel and soul to jazz and blues, with an emphatic attack that reflects her percussionist alter ego.

There isn’t a ton of her music online, but it validates her reputation as someone who can literally sing anything, with soul. Her music page has Memphis-inspired sounds, a Lou Reed-flavored tune, a big cascading piano ballad, some slinky funk and that blazing Aretha cover. And some sleuthing turned up an electrifying version of Stormy Monday where she starts out misty and rises to a peak that will give you goosebumps (fast forward to about the 40 minute mark after the interview for the song).

Hunstad picked the right part of the world for a home base: her gig schedule has not slowed down since the horrible events of March 2020 and subsequently. She’s at R Wine Bar, 322 E 8th St. in Sioux Falls at 6 PM on Sept 25, then she has another hometown show at Severance Brewing Co., 701 N Phillips Ave. on Sept 28 at 7.

Longtime readers of this blog may wonder why, after years of advocating for performances by New York artists, there would be coverage of such a faraway place as South Dakota here.

Being one of the free states, South Dakota does not have a dictator weaponizing venues to enforce evil apartheid policies against customers who don’t use city-approved spyware. Until New York gets back to normal – and that means no apartheid – you may be seeing a lot more interesting artists from unexpected places here.

A Familiar Favorite on the Oldtime Swing Scene Return For an East Village Dance Party

Until the lockdown last year, Baby Soda were one of the busiest bands on the New York oldtimey swing circuit. They’re also one of the most original. Where Svetlana & the Delancey Five began to bring in repertoire from the 40s on forward, along with more outside-the-box arrangements, Baby Soda distinguished themselves as improvisers. What made their shows so much fun is that they didn’t just try to replicate those old 78s: they’d keep the dancers going, with all kinds of wild interplay and solos, for minutes on end. They’re back to their old tricks, with an outdoor show this Sept 24 at about 7 PM to kick off this year’s LUNGS Festival in the East Village at La Plaza Cultural de Armando Perez, Ave C and 9th St.

They recorded their live album – streaming at Bandcamp – at their main haunt, Radegast Hall, back in 2011 (sadly, the venue doesn’t have music anymore). There’s been a rotating cast of players filtering through the band over the years. The record has the original core unit of Emily Asher on trombone and vocals, Adrian Cunningham on clarinet and tenor sax, Jared Engel on banjo and Kevin Dorn on drums. Peter Ford plays box bass and Kevin V Louis plays cornet; both sing.

The sound quality is vastly better than you would expect from an outdoor show on a Saturday at a crowded Williamsburg beer garden. The opening number, a boisterous take of the old hokum blues revenge tune You Rascal You, is a red herring: don’t be fooled by the relative brevity of this song because the other numbers here go on for much longer. Ford sings it; guest clarinetist William Reardon Anderson bubbles within a cheery web of dixieland counterpoint.

The rest of the album is more solo-centric. The instrumental Weary Blues is anything but tired: Louis’ moment where he spirals out of the sky draws a roar from the drinkers. The band follow with a New Orleans mardi gras shuffle, a dixieland remake of a hymn, then When You Wore a Tulip with its energetic guy/girl vocals.

Cunningham’s modulated clarinet solo on the midtempo drag Whinnin Boy is another highlight. A deliciously klezmerized take of Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho is the best song of the afternoon, with an ecstatic cornet/drums duel.

After a booty-shaking Palm Court Strut, Asher moves to the mic for an undulating take of Sugar and then shows off her signature, devious sense of humor with her horn. Ford must like the mean songs because he takes over on vocals again on Nobody’s Sweetheart Now. They go out in a blaze of Glory Glory. A good choice to open the festival on the 24th.

Satoko Fujii Finds Strange Magic in Ambient Music

Jazz pianist Satoko Fujii has always had an otherworldly side, but she’s really gone deep into some incredibly mystical sounds in the last few years. The title of her new album, Piano Music – streaming at Bandcamp – is funny because most of it doesn’t sound like piano music at all.

Although Fujii has recorded electroacoustic albums and has used effects and mixers live – laptop percussion pioneer Ikue Mori is a frequent collaborator – this is Fujii’s first venture into ambient music. And it’s a characteristically captivating new chapter in a wildly prolific, individualistic career that shows no sign of slowing down.

Fujii likes playing inside the piano, so on one hand she’s no stranger to evincing echoing, gently droning atmospherics via acoustic techniques like rubbing the strings or bowing them with wire and other materials. Here, she runs a kaleidoscopic series of phrases through a mixer instead.

Her autoharp-like strums and plucks under the lid make for a magically textured contrast with echoing, loopy drones and what could be whale song on the A-side, Shiroku (Japanese for “white”). When she lets the music recede to a series of spare, koto-like microtonal phrases, the effect is just as striking, especially considering where she takes it.

She begins the B-side, Fuwarito (“Softly”) as a soundscape, but hardly a quiet one – those whales are a lively bunch, and Fujii gets a snowstorm out of rubbing those strings. With a phantasmic bell choir, persistently echoey, rhythmic woodblock-like timbres, grinding industrial chords, ghostly pizzicato-like phrases and eventually quite a storm, it becomes her Revolution 9. This isn’t easy listening but it is psychedelic to the extreme, and the fun that Fujii obviously had making it is visceral. She’s gone on record as saying that her raison d’etre is to make music that the world has never heard before, and this definitely qualifies.

Drifting Disconnection and Distant Disquiet From Lizzie Loveless

Singer/keyboardist Lizzie Loveless’ new album You Don’t Know – streaming at Bandcamp – falls somewhere between recent Courtney Marie Andrews and Julee Cruise. The former member of indie sister act Teen sings in an unadorned, unpretentious high soprano and likes strange synth textures. There’s a persistent unease to the songs here, no surprise considering the circumstances we all find ourselves under these days.

“You don’t know what it means to be me, and you don’t know what it means to stay,” she intones in the album’s opening, title track, a summery, bittersweet blue-eyed soul ballad in 6/8 time. The shimmering, sweeping, twinkling layers of keys make a decent digital facsimile of how, say, Dusty Springfield might have approached this song half a century ago.

Loveless’s disconnected, anomie-stricken vocals float over a skeletal guitar figure and more of those starry keys in The Joke, which could be about drugs, or just emotional abandonment – or both. There’s an even more opiated, hazily Lynchian pop feel to Memory: “When memory fails, does muscle prevail?” Loveless wants to know.

Eyes of a Man has surreal, techy new wave touches, Loveless ambitiously tackling the problem of viewing romance from a male perspective. Dudes don’t exactly come off well here.

The album’s fifth track, titled Loveless, also has a synthy new wave feel, but a more hypnotically propulsive one. She blends oldschool gospel allusions with wafting synth ambience in Hold Me Close and follows with Window, rising more quickly out of the ether to a catchy, shuffling anthem.

New York, Yesterday – how’s that for a gutpunch of a title? – is not a lockdown chronicle but a wintry, wistfully motorik reminiscence of a doomed relationship. It’s the best song on the album. There’s unexpected energy and a squiggly, funky bassline beneath the surface sheen of Underneath. Loveless stays with the upbeat (ok, that’s a relative word here) energy to wind up the album with Again, a catchy four-chord trip-hop groove.

A Colorfully Lyrical, Fast-Fingered Songwriter on the High Plains

Billy Lurken is the rare Americana songwriter who’s also a hell of a lead guitarist. His axe is acoustic. He gets a much bigger sound out of his guitar than most guys who usually play solo, and does the same on the banjo. He’s just as strong at bluegrass-style flatpicking as he is with the big jazzy chords of western swing and his own high-voltage take on the blues. He’s also a vivid chronicler of the anomie and quiet desperation everyday people face in Flyover America. Born in Minnesota and raised in South Dakota, he’s a fixture on the high plains circuit. His next gig is a free outdoor show on Sept 19 at 2 PM at Wilde Prairie Winery, 48052 259th St. in Brandon, South Dakota.

Lurken’s songs pick up on the little details but also capture the big picture. “It’s a Monday-through-Friday sort of dying” is one of the key lines in the Studs Terkel-influenced number he opened with on a segment of the No Cover, No Minimum show on South Dakota Public tv which you can stream here.

Movin’ On is a showcase for Lurken’s fast fingers on the frets: it’s a brisk early 50s style western swing-infused boogie about how the years can take their toll on a couple.

One of his most memorable story-songs is Home, a fast-picked chronicle of something less than bliss on the blue-collar domestic front. For all the detail – the dust-streaked Cadillac, the stoned girl on the back porch with her “Audrey Hepburn shades” – it’s what Lurken doesn’t say that packs the biggest punch.

And he has upbeat, optimistic songs to balance out the gloomy ones. There’s Girl in the Flowered Dress, a showcase for his chops. Tumbleweed, a studio recording, has a luscious, bluegrass-infused mix of guitar and banjo. And Rider, a cowboy tune, is a stark, nimbly fingerpicked Jimmie Rodgers-style blues.

If it might seem odd that a blog which has advocated for live music throughout the five boroughs of New York might be paying so much attention to South Dakota, that’s because South Dakota is a free state. There’s no apartheid there, no spyware required to go indoors at venues, restaurants and bars. That’s the way it is throughout the rest of the free states: Florida, Texas and across the plains. America’s Frontline Doctors have filed a civil rights lawsuit to overturn Mayor Bill DiBozo’s evil, unconstitutional edict, and at the moment a lot of businesses aren’t enforcing it. Until we succeed in liberating ourselves, you may see more of what’s happening in the land of “Great Faces, Great Places” here.

A Rich, Multi-Layered, Epic New Middle Eastern-Flavored Album From Amir Elsaffar

Amir Elsaffar’s Rivers Of Sound Orchestra play oceanic, tidally shifting soundscapes that blend otherworldly, microtonal Middle Eastern modes, lushly immersive big band jazz improvisation and what could be called symphonic ambient music. Elsaffar has made a name for himself as an extraordinary multi-instrumentalist and composer who has done as much to create a new style of music based on the magical maqams from across the Middle East as anyone alive. His latest epically ambitious, absolutely gorgeous new album The Other Shore is streaming at Bandcamp. Thematically, this is more majestically improvisational than his other large-ensemble work, although he weaves several themes and variations into it. Subtle, occasionally cynical humor typically takes the place of the politically-fueled anger that would often surface on albums like his 2015 Crisis record.

The album’s opening number, Dhuha is a diptych. The seventeen-piece ensemble begin with dense, nebulous, rising and falling tones, with pianist John Escreet, drummer Nasheet Waits, percussionist Tim Moore and mridamgam player Rajna Swaminathan adding stately accents behind Elsaffar’s broodingly chromatic, resonant trumpet. Cellist Naseem Alatrash takes a stark microtonal solo, handing off to Elsaffar’s sister Dena’s bracingly textured joza fiddle as the group rise from a brisk stroll to a churning groove. Echo effects and dramatic vocalese from Elsaffar give way to a thicket of pointillisms from vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, oudists George Ziadeh and Zafer Tawil, and buzuq player Tareq Abboushi. Then the eagle rises again. That’s just the first thirteen minutes of the record, and it sets the stage for what’s in store.

Elsaffar’s soaring, wordless vocals fuel the upward drive in Transformations from a circling, steady stroll. Mohamed Saleh’s oboe shadows a restrained but ebullient trumpet solo, then comes to the forefront as a seemingly tongue-in-cheek Kashmiri groove develops. Saxophonists Ole Mathisen and Fabrizio Cassol work a triumphant triangulation before an elegant descent to the ouds and Miles Okazaki’s spare guitar.

The album’s most orchestral track, Reaching Upward begins with a stately, moody string theme that Elsaffar brightens with a deviously martial trumpet theme which suddenly goes 180 degrees from there. Knowing how Elsaffar works, is he going to take the hypnotic, spiky, circling theme that Okazaki and the percussionists develop and send it spinning into the maelstrom? Not quite. We get a web of concentric circles and an elusive, bracing maqam theme, Elsaffar accompanying himself with rippling santoor. A blazing sax solo backs off for a good facsimile of the Grateful Dead, which morphs into a shivery trumpet theme and eventually falls away for a calm series of waves and a gamelanesque outro. Who else is creating music this wildly and fearlessly diverse?

Ashaa is only slightly less of an epic, and the point where it becomes clear that Escreet is playing a piano in a Middle Eastern tuning. Bassist Carlo DeRosa holds the suspense until the bandleader enters into a regal trumpet passage….and then the band hit a steady, anthemic, tantalizingly chromatic clave theme that goes in a dusky Ethiopian direction. It’s arguably the album’s most wickedly catchy interlude. Syncopated quasi Isaac Hayes psychedelic soul and variations recede for a percolating DeRosa solo, then it’s back to the long road to Addis Ababa.

A bright stairstepping theme introduces the bandleader’s edgy, machinegunning santoor in the next number, Concentric. After that, Lightning Flash has a bit of a cloudburst, a calm, then a spare, biting Abboushi buzuq solo finally replaced by a steady, mechanically pulsing theme that could be Darcy James Argue.

March is all about victory, an Andalucian-tinged update on a famous Ravel tune, with a tantalizingly sizzling violin solo, a sober oud duel mingling with the vibes, the horns ushering in a rapidfire, stabbing Saleh oboe break. Elsaffar wafts uneasily through his most poignantly resonant solo of the night in the final number, Medmi. As usual with Elsaffar, this is a lock for one of the best albums of the year.