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Psychedelic Cumbia Icons Chicha Libre Reunite at Barbes

It was late 2006 at a long-gone Curry Hill honkytonk “I’ve got this Peruvian surf band playing on Sundays that you should really check out,” the club’s talent buyer suggested to an e-zine publisher who would eventually become the proprietor of a daily New York music blog. The future blog owner never made it to Rodeo Bar to see an embryonic Chicha Libre, but the group did go on to become the funnest band in New York, toured internationally and also pretty much singlehandedly introduced psychedelic cumbia to the world north of the Texas border.

They played a brief, maybe 45-minute set at their longtime home base, Barbes last night. It was their first New York show since early 2015, but it was like they’d never left. It was amazing to watch the faces of pretty much everybody in the band. The expressions spoke for themselves: “I can’t believe we’re doing this, and that it’s still this much fun.”

Vincent Douglas is still the most economically slashing surf cumbia guitarist on the planet – this time he hit his distortion pedal again and again, for simmer and burn and sunbaked ambience. Frontman/cuatro player Olivier Conan is more serioso in front of the band than ten years ago, notwithstanding the fact that this multinational act is just as much a copycat as the Peruvian cult favorites they imitate were, forty and fifty years ago.

Conguero Neil Ochoa had the songs’ machinegunning turnarounds down cold; timbalera Karina Colis not only added extra layers of devious flurries, but also perfectly replicated Alyssa Lamb’s vocal harmonies from the band’s first two records. Bassist Nick Cudahy held the center while Josh Camp used two small keyboards and a labyrinth of effects pedals for a decent recreation of the tremoloing, oscillating, keening dubwise effects he used to get out of an old Hohner Electrovox synth. Maybe it’s a lot easier to switch between a couple of keyboards than to strap on the heavy accordion body that houses the Electrovox. “Electronics have always been an issue for this band,” Conan confided.

The songs were sublime: jangly, and trebly, and swooshy, just like the classic Peruvian bands the group modeled themselves after. Pretty much everybody in the crowd was dancing or at least bouncing. Surprisingly, the one song that gave the band trouble was the broodingly otherworldly Sonido Amazonico, the national anthem of chicha and title track of their classic 2007 album. But no matter – they jammed it out, a little faster and more dubwise than they used to do it

The uneasily waltzing Depresion Tropical, a snide commentary on IMF bloodsucking in the Caribbean, had special resonance. Camp sang a cumbia version of Love’s Alone Again Or. Conan’s account of the little drunk guy in El Borrachito, who tells a girl in the bar that she should stop picking on him and be his girlfriend – in Spanish, obviously – was as cruelly funny as it was when the band played it ten years ago here. Same with the tightly shuffling Hungry Song, told from the point of view of a couple of guys who are so high they can’t tell weed from chicha. Speaking of which, Barbes now has that sour, beerlike corn mash liquor on draft. As a thirst-quencher on hot days, it’s better than beer.

They closed with their outrageously silly cover of the schlocky cheesy pioneering 1972 proto-synthpop hit, Popcorn, They’re back at Barbes tomorrow night, June 26 at 10, and if stoner music, or dance music, or cumbia is your thing, this may be your only chance to see this band, ever. They’re doing a couple of South American dates next, but after that, who knows.

Quatre Vingt Neuf Reinvent Little Rascals Soundtracks, Hot 20s Jazz and Dixieland at Barbes

When Quatre Vingt Neuf launched into their most recent show last month at Barbes, it was a jazz power play. Bryan Beninghove came up with that term: it means more people onstage than there are in the audience. But by the time the irrepressible quasi oldtimey swing band wrapped up their show around midnight, the room was packed. Quatre Vingt Neuf are last-minute like that.

They played their first gig last year when the venue had a cancellation. Owner Olivier Conan emailed Wade Ripka, who would end up playing tenor banjo in the group, to see if he could pull a pickup band together. Sure, said Ripka, who’s in a bunch of other bands (rembetiko metalheads Greek Judas and retro Russian psych-pop crew the Eastern Blokhedz to name a couple) and has a deep address book. Since Conan lives in France now, all this was done over email.

And unlike most venues, Barbes actually promotes the artists who play there. So when Conan hadn’t heard back from Ripka by around midnight, European time, he sent a final reminder to make sure that the bar would have some kind of live entertainment that night.

Apparently the show was a success. When Ripka asked for another gig for this ensemble, Conan agreed – but insisted on naming the band. He came up with Quatre Vingt Neuf (French for Eighty-nine – a revolutionary year). Since then, they’ve featured as many as seventeen players onstage. Last month’s show featured a relatively small septet.

Quatre Vingt Neuf’s shtick is that they play hot 20s jazz and dixieland with a rock rhythm section, a rarity since when those styles first originated, technology hadn’t been developed to the point where bass or drums could be recorded in a full-band situation. Realistically speaking, Quatre Vingt Neuf hardly qualify as a rock band. At the May gig, drummer Chris Stromquist (who also plays in Greek Judas and Balkan brass band Slavic Soul Party) broke out his bundles and brushes and swung with an unexpectedly subtle flair – it’s a side of him not that many people get to see. The same with bassist Nick Cudahy – who also plays in Greek Judas and the Blokhedz – walking the changes and using horn voicings in a couple of wry solos.

Interestingly, bandleader Ripka stuck to rhythm and didn’t take any solos. But the band played several of his arrangements of Little Rascals theme music, from scampering Keystone Kops miniatures to longer, more coyly crescendoing, cinematic pieces. Even the ballads were upbeat. Soprano saxophonist Jason Candler sang a handful of them, when he wasn’t sending wildfire spirals upward. Trumpeter John Carlson played terse, centered good cop to trombonist Tim Vaughn’s boisterous honks and snorts and extended technique. They’re back at Barbes on June 13 at 10 PM, headlining a great swing twinbill that begins at 8 with plush singer/baritone uke player Daria Grace & the Pre-War Ponies, who excel at oldschool mambos and can also be a lot more boisterous than most retro swing bands.

Greek Judas Headline One of the Year’s Best Twinbills in the East Village

When Greek Judas took the stage at Niagara at a little after eleven a couple of Thursdays ago, everybody in the crowd suddenly had their phones out. Maybe that was because three of the five guys in the band were wearing animal masks. But it’s more likely that nobody in the audience had ever seen a Greek metal band.

And in that space, they were louder than ever. Singer Quince Marcum projects as well as any other frontman in town, but this time he was low in the mix. When the band got their start, guitarist/lapsteel player Wade Ripka and guitarist Adam Good would typically take long, careening, Middle Eastern-tinged solos. And that worked; both guys love their creepy chromatics, and they can get totally symphonic without being boring. Times have changed: instead of jabbing at each other to pull a song back on track, there’s a lot more interplay and at least semi-controlled chaos now. Ironically, the tighter they get, the more psychedelic the music is.

Bassist Nick Cudahy downtunes his axe now, for some serious tarpit sonics. Meanwhile, drummer Chris Stromquist makes the songs’ tricky rhythms look easy: the way he plays, no matter how bizarre the underlying beat is, you can stand and sway from side to side and not feel any more stoned than you might already be.

Obviously, you don’t have to be high to appreciate the band. One of the reasons why they’ve tightened up the show is that they have a lot more songs and they don’t have to stretch them out so much. They’re all covers, from the 1920s to the 1960s, most of them from the criminal and revolutionary underworld who fought against dictatorial terror and then a British invasion after World War II. Many of those tunes were written by ethnic Greeks who’d escaped persecution in Cyprus and Turkey, only to find themselves second-class citizens in their ancestral land.

The best song of the night was I’m a Junkie, which might have just been a shout-out to good hash, or something stronger – Marcum sings everything in the original Greek. The most lyrically innocuous love song of the night was also one of the most macabre. Police brutality, heavy partying, black humor behind bars, trans-Mediterranean drug smuggling and crack addiction were some of the other topics Marcum addressed – he almost always gives the audience a little translation for just about everything. They’re back at Niagara (Ave. A and 7th St., the former King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut across from the southwest corner of Tompking Square Park) this Thursday at 10. As a bonus, the excellent Trouble with Kittens – who play similarly edgy if somewhat quieter and faster, new wave-influenced songs – open the night at 9. Noir cinematic trio Sexmob‘s brilliant drummer, Kenny Wollesen is sitting in with them this for this show. It’s a pass-the-tip-jar situation.

A Deliciously Psychedelic Album and a Saturday Night Barbes Show by One of New York’s Best Bands

Lately Bombay Rickey are calling themselves “operatic surf noir.” What’s coolest about that observation is that this irrepressible, individualistic group realize just how dark a lot of surf rock is – and how much grand guignol there is in opera. In reality, the only real western opera references in their music are channeled via frontwoman/accordionist/sitarist Kamala Sankaram’s spectacular, practically five-octave vocals. Otherwise the group transcend their origins as a Yma Sumac cover band, mashing up cumbia, Bollywood, spaghetti western, brassy Nancy Sinatra Vegas noir and even classical ragas into a wildly psychedelic, danceable vindaloo. Their new album Electric Bhairavi is streaming at Bandcamp, and they’re headlining their usual haunt, Barbes, this Saturday night at 10 PM.

The album title refers to the Indian goddess: Bhairavi is Lord Shiva’s squeeze, an eastern counterpart of sorts to Hera in Greek mythology. While the band can jam like crazy in concert, the new album is surprisingly more terse. The first track is a wildly psychedelic, Bollywoodized reinvention of the old Yma Sumac hit Virgenes del Sol, Sankaram vocalizing with tongue-in-cheek, pointillistic, Verdi-ish flair over Drew Fleming’s spiky guitar, alto saxophonist Jeff Hudgins adding a luscious solo packed with otherworldly microtones and chromatics.

The group kick off Frantic with a scream: from there, they veer from Fleming’s growling guitar against Sankaram’s flitting accordion, down to a pulsing, insectile, distangly bhangra-tinged interlude where drummer Brian Adler gets his hardware flickering, Hudgins’ sax channeling a neon-crazed moth. Kohraa, one of the band’s catchiest and most wickedly serpentine live numbers, has a slinky guaguanco beat and an uneasy interweave of surf guitar, accordion and sax. Sankaram blends allure and nuance in this beachy reminiscence.

Bhonkers – a typical title for this band – leaps between a wistfully opaque, accordion-fueled raga theme and tinges of sunbaked border rock. Likewise, Megalodon – saluting a sea monster who’s been extinct for forty thousand years – alternates between lush majesty and surf drive, Adler and bassist Gil Smuskowitz’s pulsing, syncopated riff signaling the charge.

Gopher is classic Bombay Rickey, a sly mashup of mambo, psychedelic cumbia and Bollywood. Sankaram’s droll Betty Boop accents bring to mind another  brilliant New York singer, Rachelle Garniez, in similarly sardonic mode, Hudgins and Fleming both kicking in with bristling solos. LIkewise, with Sa-4-5, they make dramatic raga-rock out of a spine-tingling, well-known Indian carnatic vocal riff.

Meri Aakhon Mein Ek Sapna Hai brings a purloined Meters strut back full circle from Bollywood: this band can really jam out the funk when they want, Hudgins pulling out all the microtonal stops as he weaves around, Sankaram reaching back for extra power in her vocalese solo during a long, hypnotic interlude over Adler’s tabla. 

The album’s most brooding track, Cowboy & Indian is a reference to band heritage – Fleming is a native Texan while the California-born Sankaram’s background is Indian. It’s an unexpectedly elegaic southwestern gothic ballad: “Midnight comes when you least expect it, but springtime will never come again,” the two harmonize. 

They wind up the record with the towering, epic raga-rock title track, rising from Sankaram’s mystical sitar intro to a mighty, guitar-fueled sway. Like the group’s previous release, Cinefonia – rated best debut album of 2014 here – this one will end up on the list of 2018’s best albums at the end of the year

Brooklyn’s Creepiest Metal Band Hit Barbes Tomorrow Night, Golden Fest on the 13th.

Greek Judas have the creepiest, most twistedly psychedelic sound of any metal band in New York. They play electrified rebetiko music. Rebetiko was to Greece in the 1920s and 30s what metal was in the early 70s cinderblock slums of Europe: the default music of a disenfranchised criminal underworld. Rebetiko songs celebrate getting stoned, smuggling hash, running from the law and dealing with the consequences sometimes – what’s more metal than that, right? Greek Judas play those feral, frequently macabre, chromatically slashing anthems wearing animal masks, with their guitars turned up to eleven. Their debut album is streaming at Bandcamp; they’re playing Barbes tomorrow night, Jan 4 at 8 PM, then they’re at Golden Fest on the 13th where they will probably be louder than any of the blaring brass bands.

The album’s first track is Young Hash Smokers (the video is here). Adam Good’s sludgy growl anchors bandleader Wade Ripka’s nails-down-the-blackboard shrieks over the steady thud of bassist Nick Cudahy and drummer Chris Stromquist. Dressed in a monk’s robe, frontman Quince Marcum sings in Greek for a strong, expressive celebration of cannabis resin.

Ripka’s guitar prowls and slashes around the upper frets in How Long the Night, up to a sly trick ending. The band bookend the darkly sirening, slide guitar-fueled I’m a Junkie with ominously lingering pieces of the Beatles’ Within You and Without You, and the unexpectedly tasty addition of a string section.

Roma Girl comes across as a mashup of late Beatles clang and smoky Keith Richards riffage, with more darkness than either of those bands – suddenly it hits you that it’s a one-chord jam. The album’s high point and most recent number here, Kokkinia 1955, pulses like a desperately dying quasar, Ripka making evil tremolo metal out of what could have been a bagpipe tune in a past life.

The smugglers’ anthem Contrabandistas is both the album’s most broodingly catchy and epic track. Syndrofisses is a launching pad for the most hydroponically intertwining, Iron Maiden-style guitar here and an especially unhinged Ripka solo that Good leaps out of and takes the song into slyly sunbaked early 70s territory.

The most evocatively desperate number here is Why I Smoke Cocaine, a crack whore’s sad story – that stuff existed on the streets of Athens in the 20s. The final cut is I’ll Become a Monk, the closest thing to a poignant breakup anthem here. Best album of 2018 so far by a mile.

Fun fact: before they were Greek Judas, the core of the band were in a stately, more traditionally-oriented rebetiko trio, Que Vlo-ve. You can still get their singles as free downloads from Bandcamp.

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.