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The 30 Best NYC Concerts of 2019

Enormous triage was required to trim this down to a manageable number. Despite a desperate climate where practically every corner property in this city is being removed from the stock of housing and commercial space and handed over to speculators, thousands of stubborn musicians and patrons of the arts won’t leave this sinking ship.

Time to celebrate that tenacity! Consider this an informed survey rather than a definitive statement:  this is the most personal of all the year-end lists here. It’s impossible to count the number of shows over the past several years where this blog was in the house even though most New Yorkers couldn’t get there (or, more likely, couldn’t get home from there) because of the subway melting down at night and on the weekend. The reverse is just as true. You want FOMO? Move to Brooklyn.

The best show of 2019 was Rose Thomas Bannister‘s wedding, at Union Pool in late September, where the Great Plains gothic songstress sang her heart out on a killer festival bill which also included her polymath guitarist husband Bob Bannister, her bagpipe wizard dad Tom Campbell jamming with the mesmerizingly trippy 75 Dollar Bill, plus sets by psychedelic indie rockers PG Six and delirious Afrobeat crew Super Yamba. For anyone who might consider it pretentious to pick a private event as the year’s best concert…it wasn’t really private. Anybody who was at the bar, or just randomly walking by, could have come in and enjoyed the music – and as the night went on, a lot of people did.

Here’s the rest of the year, in chronological order:

House of Echo at Nublu 151, 1/15/19
French keyboardist Enzo Carniel’s hauntingly improvisational quartet built Lynchian ambience throughout a smoky, hypnotic series of cinematic tableaux.

Golden Fest, 1/18-19/19
Night one of the annual blockbuster South Park Slope festival of Balkan and Balkan-adjacent music was a delirious dance party with brass band Zlatne Uste, their smaller spinoff Kavala, pontic lyra player Dimitrios Stefanides and otherworldly Turkish oboe band Zurli Drustvo. Night two went for about nine hours with about a hundred bands. Some highights: chanteuse Eva Salina fronting the Balkan Doors, Choban Elektrik: Amir Vahab‘s plaintive Iranian ballads; Raya Brass Band‘s chandelier-shaking intensity; Souren Baronian‘s deep, soulful Near Eastern jazz; clarinetist Michael Winograd‘s lavish klezmer orchestra; and thunderous Rhode Island street band What Cheer Brigade closing the festivities

Ethel at the Jewish Museum, 2/28/19
It’s shocking that it took twenty years before there was ever a world premiere performance of the complete, witheringly intense Julia Wolfe string quartet cycle…and it’s a good thing these champions of 21st century music took the job

Hearing Things at Barbes, 3/1/19
Slinky, allusively sinister, Balkan and Doors-tinged organ-and-sax grooves with a surf beat: the crowd danced hard at this wild post-happy hour gig

Josh Sinton’s Krasa at Issue Project Room, 3/15/19
Seated with his back to the audience, pushing his contrabass clarinet to its extreme limits through a huge pedalboard, Sinton’s solo show was one of the most deliciously assaultive sets of the year, over and out in less than 40 minutes.

Girls on Grass and the Sadies at Union Pool, 4/2/19
Luscious clang and twang, some Nashville gothic and surf and a little punkgrass from the legendary, jangly psychedelic band who got their start in the 90s, with a similarly brilliant, psychedelic act they highly influenced opening the night

The Juilliard Trombone Choir at the Greene Space, 4/3/19
NY Philharmonic principal trombonist Joseph Alessi‘s explosive, wickedly tight band of future classical stars ripped and pulsed through irresistibly imaginative, sometimes amusing arrangements of works from Gabrieli to Beethoven to Warlock

Mary Lee’s Corvette at the Mercury, 4/13/19
With former Pogue Cait O’Riordan bopping and slinking around on bass, Mary Lee Kortes’ rivetingly lyrical, multistylistically jangly band brought equal parts ferocity and fun

The Coffin Daggers at Otto’s in the wee hours of 5/5/19
The undisputed kings of horror surf were as loud as ever and maybe even more murkily, assaultively psychedelic

Lee Narae at Lincoln Center, 5/9/19
Backed by a terse psychedelic folk band, the individualistic pansori singer unveiled a withering, provocatively feminist remake of the ancient Korean epic Byeongangsoe-ga, told from the long-suffering bride’s point of view

Greek Judas at Niagara, 5/9/19
A great night – this is the first time there have ever been two separate shows from a single evening on this list. Guitarists Wade Ripka and Adam Good sparred through one sinister chromatic Greek rembetiko metal hash-smoking anthem after another, over the supple groove of bassist Nick Cudahy and drummer Chris Stromquist

Kayhan Kalhor and Kiya Tabassian at CUNY’s Elebash Hall, 5/10/19
Kalhor is the renowed, intense master of the Iranian kamancheh fiddle; this evening was a very rare performance on setar lute, building serpentine, hauntingly relevant epics with his protege

Loreto Aramendi at Central Synagogue, 5/14/19
In a rare US appearance, the pioneering Spanish organist played wickedly imaginative arrangements of Rachmaninoff’s iconic C# Minor Prelude, Saint-Saens’ Halloween classic Danse Macabre and pieces by Buxtehude, Liszt and Ligeti

Bobtown at Rockwood Music Hall, 6/9/19
The iconic folk noir harmony band cheerily harmonized, slunk and bounded through a mix of somewhat less creepy material than usual, with lots of tunes from their new album Chasing the Sun, plus a brooding cameo from cellist Serena Jost

The New York Philharmonic in Prospect Park, 6/14/19
In his Brooklyn debut, maestro Jaap Van Zweden led this country’s flagship orchestra through a stunningly vivid, resolutely vindictive performance of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2

Chicha Libre at Barbes, 6/26/19
The psychedelic cumbia legends reunited and warmed up for a South American tour with a couple of shows on their home turf. This was the second night, the one this blog didn’t review, and it was even better than the first, beginning with the gleefully uneasy Papageno Electrico and closing after midnight with the group’s creepy electric bolero version of Satie’s Gnossienne No. 1

Nashaz and Gato Loco at Barbes, 7/5/19
Oudist Brian Prunka’s undulating Middle Eastern band jammed out both otherworldly Egyptian classics as well as similarly edgy, entrancing originals; afterward, multi-saxophonist Stefan Zeniuk’s mighty noir mambo band burned through an even more towering, angst-fueled set

Hannah vs. the Many and the Manimals at the Nest, 7/11/19
The most entertaining show of the year began with charismatic frontwoman Hannah Fairchild’s withering, torrentially lyrical noir punk band and ended with catchy powerposters the Manimals’ incendiary bandleader Haley Bowery skidding to the edge of the stage on her knees, seemingly covered with blood. Costumes and a quasi-satanic ritual were also involved.

Michael Winograd at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, 7/28/19
The supersonic klezmer clarinetist and composer defied the heat, leading a similarly sizzling band through wildly cinematic originals from his new album Kosher Style

The Drive East Festival, 8/5-11/19
NYC’s annual celebration of traditional and cutting-edge Indian classical arts featured rapturous ragas from sitarist Hidayat Khan, hypnotic soundscapes by saxophonist Prasant Radhakrishnan, spellbinding violinists Trina Basu & Arun Ramamurthy’s Carnatic-inspired Nakshatra Quartet, and a sardonically riveting Metoo-themed dance performance by Rasika Kumar, festival creator Sahasra Sambamoorthi and Nadhi Thekkek, with a dynamic live score by Roopa Mahadevan

Looking at You at Here, 9/6/19
Kamala Sankaram and Rob Handel’s new opera, billed as a mashup of the Edward Snowden affair and Casablanca, is a satire of Silicon Valley technosupremacists falling for their own bullshit. It was as chillingly Orwellian as it was hilarious, with a subtly immersive live score .

Ben Holmes’ Naked Lore and Combo Lulo at Barbes, 9/14/19
The dynamic, resonant, klezmer and noir-inspired trumpeter, guitarist Brad Shepik and drummer Shane Shanahan built darkly chromatic mood pieces and more jaunty, acerbic tunes; it was a good setup for the organ-driven psychedelic cumbias, edgy Ethiopiques and trippy dub sounds afterward.

Wajde Ayub at Roulette, 9/28/19
The powerful Syrian baritone crooner – a protege of legendary Syrian tarab singer Sabah Fakhri – led a lavish, kinetic orchestra through a mix of harrowingly vivid, socially relevant anthems and ecstatic love ballads.

Nights one and two of the Momenta Festival, 10/15-16/19
To open their annual festival of underperformed and brand-new string quartet music at the Americas Society, the perennially relevant Momenta Quartet played a haunting Julian Carrillo microtonal piece, premiered a fierce, allusiveley political Alvin Singleton quartet as well as a more elegantly circling one by Roberto Sierra plus works by Ligeti and Mario Lavista.

The Takacs Quartet play the Bartok string quartet cycle at the 92nd St. Y, 10/18-20/19
A revelatory, slashingly energetic, insightful tour of some of the most harrowing, intense work for string quartet ever written

Big Lazy’s album release weekend at the American Can Co. building, 11/8-9/19
Bandleader and guitarist Steve Ulrich had lost his mom the night before the sold-out two-night stand started. He’d played Cole Porter’s I Love You to her that evening, and reprised the song on night one with his cinematic noir trio, bolstered by organist Marlysse Simmons, trumpeter Steven Bernstein and baritone saxophonist Peter Hess. Night two’s music was less mystical and pensive, more thrillingly, grittily menacing and macabre – when it wasn’t slinky and cynically playful.

Hamid Al-Saadi and Safaafir at Roulette, 11/23/19
The gritty, impassioned Iraqi crooner and this hemisphere’s only ensemble dedicated to classical Iraqi maqam music were tighter and more electric than they’d been at Lincoln Center in the spring, through a mix of metaphorically charged, socially relevant themes and more lively, traditional repertoire.

The Grasping Straws and Lorraine Leckie & Her Demons at the Mercury, 11/24/19
For anybody who might have missed seeing Patti Smith back in the 70s, or Jimi Hendrix in the 60s, this was a good substitute, the openers’ elegant, incisive lead guitarist Marcus Kitchen contrasting with the headliners’ feral, Hendrixian Hugh Pool

Karen Dahlstrom at Scratcher Bar, 12/8/19
The powerful, gospel-inspired singer and folk noir champion held the crowd rapt through brooding Old West narratives, wryly torchy blues, gorgeously plaintive laments and the fierce Metoo anthem No Man’s Land, the title track from her brilliant new album.

Best New York Concert of the Year

The best New York concert of 2019 was Rose Thomas Bannister‘s wedding. In case you think it’s elitist to choose a private event over something everybody in town theoretically could have gone to…you could have been there too if you happened to wander into Union Pool the night of September 29. “You thought you were coming to a wedding!” the protean, psychedelic Great Plains gothic lit-rock songwriter beamed. “I gave you a music festival!”

Super Yamba Band headlined. By that time, plenty of people had come out to the bar, with no idea that two of this era’s most formidable musical minds had just tied the knot. And soon there were plenty of random strangers getting down to slinky Afrobeat in the back room with all the wedding guests.

It’s probably safe to say that Super Yamba’s set was a mashup of their mid-July 2018 show on an old shipping pier by the water on the Upper West Side, and their gig at Barbes this past March. If there’s any band in town worth seeing more than once, it’s these guys. The pier show seemed to be louder and heavier on the horns, the keyboardist doing double duty on both, while the Barbes gig had more dynamics, instruments leaving and then rejoining the mix, Both shows were heavy on the minor-key, sometimes distantly, sometimes closely Ethiopian-tinged jams. Impassioned frontman Leon Ligan-Majek a.k.a. Kaleta did a long stint in Fela’s band toward the end, so he learned from the guy who invented Afrobeat. Cantering, undulating rhythms, sharply sparkly electric piano, looming organ and spicy, emphatic horns and brass filtered through the mix, sometimes for minutes on end, sometimes shifting quickly to a faster tempo or back the other way.

Super Yamba Band’s next gig is at 9 PM on Dec 14 at Bar Chord for the tip jar. For those who can’t make it to deep Brooklyn, they’re playing Symphony Space on Dec 19 at 7:30, where you can get in for $20 if you’re thirty and under.

The rest of the wedding was a mix of searing jams and savagely brilliant tunesmithing. The wildest jam was when Bannister’s virtuoso bagipiper dad Tom Campbell came up to the stage and joined 75 Dollar Bill for a hypnotic yet searing duel with guitarist Che Chen. It was as if the freedom fighters in Tinariwen had flown to Scotland for a predawn raid to liberate a Trump property.

Bannister has never sung more powerfully, or with more triumphant intensity. Which made sense in that marrying guitar polymath Bob Bannister was the crowning stroke in a career that began when she escaped from a Christian supremacist environment, driving off in a little car with her secret collection of forbidden secular cassettes. In that context, the sudden, wary martial flurry in the opening number, Ambition, made sense on every possible level: a word of warning, but also a vengeful, martial riff. Whichever motivation you might ascribe to the slowly crescendoing anthem – a portrait of greed, or revenge – it worked.

Working on only two rehearsals, drummer Rob Smith colored the music with his subtle brushwork and cymbals while the groom wove restlessly articulated webs of notes, from saturnine Richard Thompson-esque leads to lingering jangle and clang, austere blues, warmly soulful Beatlesque lines and even a little wry Tex-Mex. When bride and groom calmly matched voices in the stately, understated, Macbeth-inspired Lady M – “Your children will be kings” – there was no mistaking how much of a victory had been snatched from the jaws of defeat.

The rest of the set was a mix of the hypnotic and the ferocious. The Real Penelope, a mashup of Revolver Beatles psychedelia and Britfolk, was wistful yet guardedly optimistic, the future Mrs. Bannister realizing that she’d found the lead guitarist of her dreams. Same Name Blues, which she rarely plays live, had a seethingly sardonic edge, as did the most relevant song of the night, Heaven Is a Wall, a shapeshifting fable about border walls packed with the cynically appropriated Old Testament imagery that she loves to use to drive a point home. And Iowa, with its simple yet eerie Midwestern imagery and coda that fell away abruptly at the end, seemed to synopsize her flight from repression, knowing that there would be possibly apocalyptic consequences, both personally and globally,

After that, most of the band reconvened as PG Six, frontman/guitarist Pat Gubler a steely, dapperly suited presence out front. Debby Schwartz, fresh off a sizzling set with the Bannisters, was even more of a whirlwind, firing off incisive chords, raga riffs working around an open string and sinuous, soaring leads that gave the band a third lead player. Gubler’s resonant, darkly opaque chords and tersely circling lines rang out as Bannister’s leads slashed and wailed around them, sometimes bringing to mind Jerry Garcia in “on” mode, at other times veering closer to unhinged Sonic Youth territory. His bride eventually came up to sing harmonies, one of the great Brooklyn musical power couples reveling in making it official.

Ember Schrag Brings Her Haunting Great Plains Gothic Songs to Cake Shop

Ember Schrag writes what could be called Great Plains gothic songs. She’s a nimble guitarist, a gripping storyteller, clever lyricist and a strong, dynamic singer with a direct, clear, matter-of-fact voice. She originally hails from Nebraska and now makes New York her home. And while she’s far from unknown in the dark folk demimonde, her writing transcends that genre: she’s one of the most individualistic and interesting songwriters in any style of music. She and her excellent band are at Cake Shop on May 11 at 11 PM; cover is $8.

Her 2012 album The Sewing Room – streaming at Bandcamp – is a quiet, disarmingly intense masterpiece. Violence and death are everywhere, yet seldom seen: the way Schrag lets her images unwind, usually after the fact, makes them all the more haunting. The opening track, Jephthah’s Daughter, sets the stage, a cruelly allusive tale of frontier justice (or more accurately, an imitation of it), Schrag’s elegant fingerpicking mingling with Jonah Sirota’s viola. Sutherland is no less chilling, a murder ballad as nonchalantly disturbing as anything A.M. Homes or Joyce Carol Oates ever wrote, the viola again adding a plaintive edge.

Alex McManus’s ominously tremoloing guitar lines and Gary Foster’s misterioso brushes on the drums propel the surrealistically torchy, slowly swaying betrayal anthem My Brothers Men. La Maria works a skeletal acoustic riff up to a more country-tinged chorus fueled by Greg Talenfeld’s lapsteel, Schrag contemplating how troubled people so often draw you in, not only “Because their seeping problems overtake you like the ending of the day.”

Schrag goes back to a slow swing groove on the brooding, metaphorically loaded seaside tableau I Ain’t a Prophet: it reminds a lot of early-zeros Marissa Nadler. A mashup of Old Testament and pulp novel imagery set to a distantly menacing oldtime swing tune, In the Alley imagines Scripture not as an opiate but as something from the other side of the narcotic spectrum. Frauleh Jekketheka is as funny as it is redemptive, an escape anthem told not from the point of view of the escapee but by one of the rednecks she was running from, Amy Denio’s moody clarinet pairing off against Philip Gayle’s lithely dancing mandolin.

Schrag’s casually wounded vocals echo Rasputina‘s Melora Creager on the title track, possibly the only song ever written about being tortured by angels. Dark Lion Lover is the album’s most opaquely atmospheric, jazz-inflected number, Sirota’s acidic, resonant lines contrasting with Schrag’s distantly seductive delivery.

The austere, bitterly aphoristic Your Words begins as the most traditional song here and then picks up as Schrag and Talenfeld gnash their guitars a bit. P.G. Six’s piano and Jay Kreimer’s homemade instruments add ghostly ambience to Houston, a surreal portrait of alienation and estrangement. The album ends on an unexpectedly optimistic note with April Night, Schrag’s gently lilting vocals evoking Laura Cantrell as she snatches what could be victory from the jaws of defeat. This is one of the five or six best albums ever to appear on this page over the past thirty months or so – and the icing on the cake is that the rest of Schrag’s equally intriguing back catalog is also up at Bandcamp to sweep you off into a world that in its own strange way looks dangerously like this one.