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Tag: pierre de gaillande

Art-Rock Bandleader Hilary Downes Releases a Searingly Metaphorical New Solo Album

From the late zeros to the early part of this decade, pianist Hilary Downes was frontwoman for the Snow, who rank with Changing Modes and Botanica as one of the greatest art-rock bands to call this city their home. Since then, Downes has hardly been idle, and she’s finally releasing her similarly brilliant debut as a solo bandleader, Secrets of Birds – streaming at Bandcamp – at Barbes this Saturday night, Jan 28 at 8 PM. Folk noir standout Jessie Kilguss guests on vocals; eclectic A-list accordionist Will Holshouser leads one of his many projects to open the night at 6. After the Barbes show, most of the crowd are heading over to Freddy’s for Robin Aigner‘s Leonard Cohen tribute night.

Downes has a distinctive voice – a crystalline, often swoony yet precise delivery – a laser-like sense for a mot juste and a penchant for grim metaphors and multiple meanings. Meaning, she doesn’t stop at double entendres. The band behind her rises to the occasion to create a lush backdrop for her sometimes elusive, sometimes crushingly direct narrratives.

The opening track is Caldera, an elegant but venomously interconnected series of mythological scenes: “One could predict that the love they felt was equal to the harm they could inflict,” Downes intones, hushed and deadpan. Jeffrey Schaeffer’s waves of cymbals and sardonic swoops from the string section – violinist Karl Meyer and cellist Sara Stalnaker – drive the point home at the end with piercing accuracy.

Downes brings her torchiest nuance to the swing shuffle Deep Well, awash in chilly water metaphors and nocturnal unease:

Would that she could hold the night
Cold and without wind
To hold all of it oh so tight
Until it let her in

Her vocals bring calm and tenderness alongside Mike Cohen’s lingering guitars in contrast with Meyer’s stark violin throughout the optimistic Americana-tinged ballad Hearts Plateau. Then the band picks up the pace with the steamy, bossa-tinged Masters of the Table, a feast of imagery that gives the bandleader a slam-dunk opportunity to flip the script. She’s a master of turning the tables on what you might expect.

Dylan Nowik’s growling, stately lead guitar rises over darkly baroque strings and Cohen’s noir-tinged jangle on The Owl, a majestic and subtly sardonic portrait of a predator. Downes pulls out all the stops in Canon of Proportions, a purposeful, backbeat-driven anthem that’s the key to the album’s bitter central narrative:

Left long shadows in the sand
His arms, wings of a plane
He was Davinci’s man
His soul dwarfed by his frame

Matt Brandau’s boomy bass kicks off the album’s best and most cruelly vivid song, The Gist. It wouldn’t be out of place on Portishead’s Live at Roseland album:

Lady luck, she found her wealth
Took it from her former self
Queen of the sky, queen of the plain
She made herself a nest where birds could lay

The band take their deepest plunge into noir on album’s title track: “Save me from these thoughts, divebomb every part,” Downes laments, yet she’s just as defiant: “I’m not afraid of the darkness in my way.” She ends the album with the death-fixated psychedelic soul ballad The Word and then the waltzing, surprisingly optimistic Rainbow. It’s only January, but we have a real contender for best original album of 2017 here.

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Pierre de Gaillande Brings His Edgy, Hilarious English Translations of Georges Brassens Classics Back to Barbes

In the New York art-rock demimonde, Pierre de Gaillande has a resume second to none, first leading the darkly ornate Melomane and then the Snow with the similarly talented Hilary Downes. Since then, he’s dedicated himself to an ongoing chamber chanson project, orchestrating and translating Georges Brassens songs. Brassens had a long career as a gadfly and thorn in the side of the censors on French radio, from the 40s through the 70s. Every time he’d get banned, he’d write something even more mercilessly funny and smutty. He was populist to the core and is still iconic there. De Gaillande’s translations are meticulous, maintaining Brassens’ gritty humor, crushing sarcasm and even the same rhyme schemes, in English, no small achievement. Like this blog, De Gaillande makes Barbes his home base; he’s playing there this Friday night, April 29 at 8.

Catching his show there back in October was a lot of fun. It was a typical performance: he played his signature hollowbody Gibson, backed by an inspired chamber pop band with violin, bass,.drums, accordion and clarinet. As usual, there were also a couple of special guests, one a woman who sang a spare, brief acoustic number and the other a French hip-hop artist who reworked Brassens into a droll, slangy rap.

De Giallande’s voice has deepened over the years: he’s never sung better. He opened with the snidely waltzing, anti-bourgeous broadside Philistines, then had a good time with The Princess and the Troubadour. a jailbait swing tune where the narrator tells the fifteen-year-old girl that he ‘Doesn’t have the makings of a pedophle,” and doesn’t want to spend the rest of his days in the joint. While De Gaillande has a couple of albums of Brassens songs out, he’s always adding new material, and some of the best ones in this set were new additions: a jaunty, southwestern gothic-tinged waltz and a hilarious drinking song. Nobody drinks writes drinking songs like the French, and Brassens was especially good at it.

There were also plenty of familiar treats from the De Gaillande/Brassens repertoire, including the hilariously irreverent Don Juan, a twisted salute to people who chase…um…undesirable partners. The group also swung their way through I Made Myself Small, which although Brassens dedicated it to his longtime girlfriend, his narrator comes across as completely pussywhipped. De Gaillande alternated English and French verses in a similarly amusing portrait of a lightning rod salesman (Freudian – get it?) making the rounds of Parisian housewives. And he reminded that things aren’t much different now than they were in 1954 when Brassens wrote Public Benches and its sardonic portrait of hypocrites, “People putting other people down for doing what they wish they had the nerve to do. In other words, Republicans,” he grinned. The group wound up the set with a lickety-split, bouncy number fueled by a fiery clarinet solo. It should be fun to see what new gems De Gaillande will unveil this time around.

Charming Disaster Take Their Wickedly Literate Narratives and Murder Ballads on the Road

Charming Disaster are a New York mini-supergroup, a collaboration between Jeff Morris, frontman of majestically slinky circus rock/latin/art-rock band Kotorino, and Ellis Bisker, who leads existenialist chamber pop/soul band Sweet Soubrette. Their debut album, which came out earlier this year and is up at bandcamp, is a mix of murder ballads and crime narratives. Since then, they’ve expanded their worldview to include songs about just about any kind of troubled relationship. They like duets, and swing, and Romany sounds, and mythology. They’re currently hitting the road (tourdates are here), and when they get back they’re hosting a night of murder ballads at Branded Saloon in Ft. Greene on October 19 at 8 PM.

Their show at the end of last month at Pete’s Candy Store – which also went out over the interwebs via Concert Window – was deliciously creepy, but there was also a lot of new material, a series of character studies and retelings of old myths from around the world which were just as erudite and bewitchingly lyrical as their earlier stuff. Bisker played electric ukulele and kept time on a hi-hat while Morris played guitar and a stompbox of sorts. The uke and guitar mingled so seamlessly that it was as if they were a single ringing, rippling entiity. Morris took the deadpan rake role in contrast to Bisker’s torchiliy menacing allure.

They opened with Ghost Story, a catchy backbeat-driven tale of love or something like it, beyond the grave. The darkly jaunty, Weimar-inflected Showgirl, Morris explained, was inspired by his great-aunt, a real showgirl back in the Roaring 20s who dated a mobster…and also went out with a cop. The most gorgeously jangly number of the night was Ragnarok, a sardonic Laurel Canyon psychedelic folk anthem exploring grisly Nordic apocalyptic imagery; it brought to mind Pierre de Gaillande‘s late, lamented art-rock band the Snow.

The duo joined voices for a grim, Appalachian-tinged waltz about starvation in the wilderness, then made uneasily pouncing garage-psych rock out of the Egyptian Osiris myth. They cast Persephone not as an ingenue longing to be rescued but someone who’d embraced her fate as a permanent citizen of Hades, bringing to mind another great, now disbanded New York group, the Disclaimers.

A ukulele swing version of Led Zep’s Immigrant Song was just plain hilarious; after that, the duo went back to bittersweetly jangly with Artichoke, Bisker contributing a droll kazoo solo over Morris’ frenetic guitar clang. They wound up the set with a funny circus rock duet in the same vein as what Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl did with A Fairytale of New York. Audiences up and down the Eastern Seaboard are up for a real treat this month.

The Pre-War Ponies Bring Their Lush, Romantic, Warmly Nocturnal Swing Sounds Back to Barbes

Every time you turn around, another oldtimey swing band pops up somewhere around town. And venues have gotten wise: even grungy old Arlene’s has swing bands now! Ten years ago, who would have thought? One of the most original and distinctive groups in that feverishly followed demimonde is the Pre-War Ponies. Where most 20s hot jazz outfits play lickety-split, uptempo material, the Pre-War Ponies specialize in warmly swinging, mostly midtempo songs anchored by the plush, balmy, disarmingly clear vocals of frontwoman/baritone uke player Daria Grace (a founding member of another iconic New York swing band, the Moonlighters). And while many of the other swing crews in town play the same old standards, the Pre-War Ponies have been known to scour junk shops in search of rare gems from eighty and ninety years ago. They’ve got a fantastic new album, Get Out Under the Moon due out soon and a show on Sept 10 at 10 PM at Barbes. Auspiciously, Pierre de Gaillande (former frontman of brilliant New York art-rockers Melomane, with whom Grace played bass) debuts his new band, Open Kimono to open the night at 8.

The Pre-War Ponies’ Barbes show last month was as pillowy, and romantic, and fun as you could possibly want, enhanced by the erudite wit and groove of polymath latin jazz drummer Willie Martinez. Grace ran her uke through an effects pedal, adding subtle tinges of reverb as well as some psychedelically oscillating timbres on a couple of numbers. J. Walter Hawkes doubled on uke and trombone, alternating between boisterous – and sometimes droll – and comfortable, nocturnal ambience on both instruments. Martinez’s ambling brushwork and artful cymbal work propelled the forthcoming album’s 1928 title track;, then he gave a lowlit slink to Grace’s subtly moody take of Irving Berlin’s Say It Isn’t So as Hawkes added shadowy resonance.

They played what’s more or less their signature song, Moon Over Brooklyn – a onetime Guy Lombardo recording – early in the set. Other than the Flatbush Avenue reference, it could be set pretty much anywhere, but as Grace sang it, it had a coyly strolling charm that was impossible to resist. From there they picked up the pace with a jaunty take of Fats Waller’s How Can You Face Me with Hawkes’ trombone front and center. Then they went back toward bittersweet territory as Grace’s expansive chords anchored a brooding shuffle take of The Lamp Is Low, a showcase for Martinez at his most articulate and expressive.

You wouldn’t think a band could raise the energy level with a suicide song, but that’s what they did, with a bouncy take of Jimmie Noone’s 1920s hit Ready for the River. Amapola, a tongue-in-cheek cha-cha shout-out to a pretty little poppy (you do the math) was another springboard for Martinez’s spring-loaded subtlety behind the kit, Hawkes adding foghorn trombone ambience. Al Dubin and Harrry Warren’s risque swing tune Pettin’ in the Park bore a mysterious resemblance to Walking in a Winter Wonderland, with a pulsing Ian Riggs bass solo midway through. Hawkes’ eyeball-rolling muted trombone solo took centerstage in the Boswell Sisters’ Got the South in My Soul to wind up the band’s first set. The crowd responded warmly: it was date night, lots of couples, from their 20s to older Slopers out for a romantic evening in Barbes’ cozy back room. That’s probably the biggest reason behind the unwavering popularity of the stuff the Pre-War Ponies play.

Robin Aigner Brings Her Bittersweet, Richly Lyrical, Picturesque Americana to Barbes

Robin Aigner is one of the most darkly entertaning performers in New York. Long sought after as both a frontwoman and harmony singer – her time in chamber pop luminaries Pinataland ought to be at leat semi-legendary – she’s just as strong a songwriter. Her music draws equal on 19th century folk, Prohibition-era swing and oldtime hillbilly songs, with the occasional detour into Balkan sounds. And she can be hilarious: her lyrics are all about subtext, and double entendres, and history. She’s written about molasses floods in WWI-era Boston, inept Williamsburg buskers and imagined romances between such improbable figures as Irving Berlin and the first woman to come in through Ellis Island (she was Irish). And Aigner is an unreconstructed romantic – her characters get all bumped and bruised no matter what century they’re in, but they don’t quit. She and her charming chamber pop band Parlour Game are playing Barbes on August 8 at 8 PM, followed at 10 by Banda de los Muertos, a supergroup of NYC jazz types playing rousingly anthemic Sinaloa-style Mexican ranchera music for brass band.

Aigner is also an impresario: her previous gig was a mind-bogglingly eclectic, surprising, sometimes downright haunting night of Tom Waits covers at Freddy’s, featuring a diverse cast of characters including but hardly limited to Mamie Minch, Serena Jost, Pierre de Gaillande, Brooke Watkins, Dave Benjoya, Andrew Sovine and numerous others. She also put together the show before that, a magical night at the Jalopy with folk noir songwriter Erica Smith, rockabilly and retro guitar maven Monica Passin a.k.a. L’il Mo and devious accordion-and-violin duo the Wisterians. “Every month is World Wine Month,” Aigner announced to the audience at the Jalopy gig, and while she didn’t indulge in more than a couple of glasses during her set, that comment set the tone. Playing solo on guitar, she opened with Delores from Florence, an allusive yet minutely detailed tale of transcontinental love gone wrong set to a soaringly cantering, flamenco-tinged waltz.

After that, she did See You Around, a broodingly pulsing, wryly wistful number told from the point of view of a woman struggling to get past being smitten by a guy who clearly has no use for her in daylight. Pearl Polly Adler – an innuendo-packed shout-out to the legendary FDR-era bordello owner – looked back to early 20th century pop, when 90% of the stuff coming out of New York had a tasty, bracing klezmer tinge. For that matter, so did Kiss Him When He’s Down, a jaunty endorsement for giving a roofie to your significant other – or insignificant other – in order to get what you want.

Switching to uke, Aigner drew plenty of laughs with Crazy, a hilariously detailed litany of the kind of weirdos a woman can date if she sees fit. She went for darker ambience with the plaintive, alienated war survivor’s tale El Paraiso, then picked things up again with the jaunty Irving and Annie – Annie thinks Irving can play sonatas (he can’t) and later on in the song, she references Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island), which used to serve as a quasi-quarantine and was the site of one of New York’s first hospitals. After another moody, low-key number, Aigner teamed with Watkins on accordion to wind up her set with Greener, a soaringly anxious, bitter post-party alienation anthem that works on innumerable levels. If we’re lucky, she’ll play some and maybe all of these songs at Barbes.

Pierre de Gaillande Translates and Reimagines a New Collection of Hilarious Georges Brassens Songs

Pierre de Gaillande‘s first collection of English translations of songs by legendary French songwriter Georges Brassens was one of 2010’s most deliciously fun, lyrical albums. The Brooklyn art-rocker who currently leads the Snow has returned with Bad Reputation, Volume 2, a new mix of Brassens songs. In a thirty-year career that began in the late 40s, Brassens was both a celebrity and a big pain in the ass of the French authorities: getting banned from the radio only made him more wildly popular. De Gaillande has said that Brassens was more punk than most punk rockers, and he’s right: Brassens had more than one bête noire, including fascists, religious nuts and hypocrites from all walks of life. His songs are riddled with puns, double and triple entendres. That his lyrics have held up as well as they have over the decades, considering how slangy they are, not to mention Brassens’ constant references to history, mythology and Catholicism, attests to the power of his caustic wit. But despite all that, Brassens never reached an audience far beyond his native land, partly because he sang exclusively in French (in an era when French singers often courted an Anglophone audience), partly because his songs had such bare-bones production: he was lo-fi decades before lo-fi was cool.

With de Gaillande at the helm of this project, Brassens’ songs get the benefit of a much better singer and also a more accomplished multi-instrumentalist (Brassens never cared to do more than comp basic chords on guitar or piano), as well as elegant Romany jazz and chamber pop-tinged arrangements. As with the first album, the band includes de Gaillande’s Snow bandmates David Spinley on clarinet, Quentin Jennings on flute, charango and xylophone and Christian Bongers on bass along with numerous cameo appearances, among them bass clarinetis Ken Thomson, chanteuse Keren Ann and Brassens’ final lead guitarist, Joel Favreau. As he did on the first Bad Reputation album, de Gaillande has also matched the rhyme scheme of Brassens’ lyrics throughout virtually all of the songs here, no small achievement.

While it has its excoriating moments, this collection is somewhat more lighthearted than the first Bad Reputation mix. As before, the songs are taken from throughout Brassens’ career. The first, Dear Old Leon (Le vieux Leon), is fueled by humor that’s subtly vicious rather than in-your-face like Brassens usually was: it’ll resonate mightily with people who don’t like accordions. Like many of Brassens’ songs, it’s something of a faux eulogy: too bad we didn’t stick around that night when old Leon crashed the party with his squeezebox, the narrator muses. In a cruel stroke of irony, this album is the final recording by Jean-Jacques Franchin, Brassens’ longtime keyboardist, who plays accordion on this and several other songs with a lithe, animated touch.

Interestingly, de Gaillande translates La complainte des filles de joie as Lament of the Ladies of Leisure, adding yet another level of possible sarcasm to Brassens’ only half-sarcastic defense of hardworking, underappreciated hookers. There are a couple of kiss-off songs here: Give Them All a Kiss (Embrasse-les tous) is a vengeful waltz directed at a girl with an “artichoke heart, anyone can have a leaf,” who goes for “Tall ones and short, even Lilliputians fully grown, give them all a kiss, god will recognize his own.” And With All Due Respect (Sauf le respect que je vous dois) finds Brassens the pacifist threatening to punch out anyone who brings up the subject of love.

The War of 14-18 (La guerre de 14-18) reaffirms that antiwar stance, a sarcastic defense of the First World War as being the greatest of them all since it was the most gruesome.  The decision to follow In the Clear Water of the Fountain (Dans l’eau de la claire fontaine), a coy nude-girl scenario, with The Wind (Le vent), a sendup of bourgeois conformity, is absolutely brilliant, both thematically and lyrically. Wine (Le vin) is one of the alltime great drinking songs, and de Gaillande delivers it lustily as the band builds to a klezmer-tinged romp. As Brassens tells it, his parents found him under a vine, “not the cabbage patch like all of those average Joes…if cows made red wine, I’d milk them before breakfast.” Likewise, The Old Man (L’ancêtre) tells the sad tale of a dedicated crew hell-bent on giving their dying friend a kickass sendoff, with music, and wine, and prostitutes…but the killjoy nun at the door won’t have any of it.

The Storm (L’orage) is classic Brassens, working every irony and Freudian symbol in the story of a guy trying to seduce the wife of his neighbor, a lightning rod salesman. The album ends with The Codicil (Supplique pour être enterré à la plage de Sete), which is the longest song Brassens ever wrote, a detailed list of burial instructions. Brassens explains that he wants his final resting place to be at the beach where he can watch hot girls from the great beyond –  and if any of them want to use his tomb for sunbathing or changing their clothes, so much the better. English-speaking Brassens fans will have a great time debating the nuances of de Gaillande’s artful and clever translations; for those who don’t speak French, this album and its predecessor are a long overdue introduction. De Gaillande plays the album release show for this one on Oct 27 at Joe’s Pub at 7:30 PM; advance tix are $15 and highly recommended.

The Snow’s Disaster Is Your Mistress: An Art-Rock Classic

While it might seem a little extreme to proclaim the Snow‘s latest album Disaster Is Your Mistress to be a classic, somebody has to do it: four or five times a year, albums this good make their way over the transom here. Full disclosure: this actually came out in 2012. A file was sent; the link didn’t work; the ball was dropped on this end and finally retrieved close to a year later. Things like that happen around here more often than you will ever know.

In the age where indie rock is usually recorded by cutting and pasting a simple verse and chorus so that the band (or, possibly, the producer) doesn’t have to play either more than once, the Snow still make songs that sound that seem like they were a joy rather than a chore to create. The Brooklyn art-rock band distinguish themselves for having not one but two brilliant songwriters in singer/keyboardist Hilary Downes and guitarist/singer/trumpeter Pierre de Gaillande. Downes’ songs tend to be torchier, crafted to fit her crystalline, Anita O’Day-esque jazz voice. Her co-bandleader’s songs tend to rock harder, sometimes with the dark garage-rock edge that his first New York band, Melomane (who are in dry dock now but once in awhile make an appearance onstage) were known for. Each songwriter’s lyrics have edge, and bite, and clever wordplay imbued with black humor.

The Snow’s arrangements and production on their previous two albums had a chamber pop elegance, but the new album is a throwback to the days of peak-era Pink Floyd – each song has an intricately arranged, symphonic sweep. No verse or chorus is ever exactly the same: guitar and keyboard voicings and effects change, depending on the lyrics, rising and falling with a sometimes epic grandeur. Most albums can be summed up in a couple of paragraphs, but there are so many interesting things going on in this one that it takes awhile to get to know, and it takes some time explaining, and it’s all worth it.

It opens with a brief, staccato, dancing string intro fueled by Sara Stalnaker’s cello and Karl Meyer’s violin. The first song is Downes’ Paper Raincoats, alternating between a stately, marching art-rock theme and a funkier groove:

Feed your disequilibrium
Until the planted seed is born
We’re wearing paper raincoats
In a season of storm
Are you on your way home?

she asks anxiously. De Gaillande’s simmering minor-key bolero Little Girl is hilarious, and vicious, and poignant as a portait of an annoyingly irresponsible Edie Sedgwick type. It starts out sympathetically and then gets brutal, with fuzztone guitar and some LMFAO snide vocoder. The album’s title track layers swirling, ELO-flavored psychedelics into a swaying, 6/8 anthem, Christian Bongers’ bass rising tensely as the chorus kicks in. It works on multiple levels: as a metaphor for simply leaving a bad situation behind, or for a nation at the edge of disaster.

Pomegranate is one of de Gaillande’s playful, droll, catchy numbers, evolution as a metaphor for guy hooking up with girl. “I guess we lose a lot of fluids when we finally make the climb,” he grins, drummer Jeff Schaefer pushing it with a purposeful new wave beat and then taking it down halfspeed to a quiet interlude lowlit by Downes’ coy vocalese. If the radio played songs this smart, this would be the album’s hit single.

Downes’ pensive chamber pop ballad Glass Door has a gentle, Moody Blues-ish woodwind chart – David Spinley on clarinet and Quentin Jennings on flute – and one of the album’s best lyrics:

Here you are a fugitive
On the chamber you depend
A little peace, a little shelter
And safety from buffetting winds
But smoke gets in, inside this sphere
And in this haze we live my dear
One warden’s custody you plead
For another form of slavery
Where are the rooms inside of you? 

Good Morning Cambodia takes a savage look at how the west looked the other way during Pol Pot’s genocidal regime, de Gaillande’s banjo eerily mimicking a koto as the verse scampers to the faux-cheery turnaround. It builds to an apprehensive backbeat Romany rock anthem fueled by Meyer’s sailing violin, and then a series of cruelly funny false endings.

Black and Blue builds from funky trip-hop spiced with Ken Thomson’s baritone sax and Downes’ come-on vocals and then winds down to a gorgeous art-rock chorus. Dirty Diamond is a subdued wee-hours duet, part countrypolitan, part noir cabaret, solace for anyone stuck on the corporate treadmill:

There’s a cruel character
And its cunning opposite
And they follow you around
As they watchy you step in shit
It’s a drag to run this race
With these strivers and their baggage 
You never seem to keep the pace
As they rip and run you ragged 

With its Cure references, the brief, brisk duet Reaching Back is the closest thing to Bushwick blog-rock here, soberingly weighing the pros and cons of keeping a tradition alive, be it familial or artistic.  The album ends with Stay Awake, a slowly swaying apprehensive folk-rock anthem a la the Strawbs, imploring a nameless, dissolute figure to clean up his or her act:

Push on the verge of the surging ocean
Missing the days of the sweet commotion past
You felt your way to the creeping notion
It’s a lie that will make devotion last
And the bosses lost their minds
And you might not have the line
And the dotted line that you signed
When you were flying was a lie

And you resigned

While de Gaillande has made his frequently hilarious, richly tuneful English-language Georges Brassens cover band his main focus lately, the Snow is still active. Here’s the itunes link.

The 30 Best New York Concerts of 2012

Of all the end-of-the-year lists here, this is the most fun to put together. It’s the most individual – everybody’s got a different one.  Last year’s list had 26 shows; this year’s was impossible to whittle down to less than 30. What was frustrating was looking back and realizing how many other great shows there were. Erica Smith, Rebecca Turner, Love Camp 7 and Pinataland all on the same bill at the Parkside? The club didn’t list it on their calendar. Neil Young in Central Park? Completely spaced out on that one. Pierre de Gaillande’s Georges Brassens translation project, Les Chauds Lapins and Raya Brass Band at that place in Tribeca in January? That night conflicted with Winter Jazzfest. The Brooklyn What at Littlefield, Rachelle Garniez at Barbes, Ward White and Abby Travis at Rock Shop, Spanglish Fly at SOB’s…all of those conflicted with having a life. But it was still a great year, arguably better than 2011.

Of all the multiple-act bills, the longest marathon, and arguably most exhilarating show of the year was Maqamfest on January 6 at Alwan for the Arts downtown with slinky Egyptian film music revivalists Zikrayat, haunting vintage Greek rembetiko oud band Maeandros, torchy Syrian chanteuse Gaida, rustic Iraqi classicists Safaafir, deviously intense Palestinian buzuq funk band Shusmo and then a crazy Middle Eastern jam with the brilliant Alwan All-Stars. Maqamfest 2013 promises to be just as good.

Rather than trying to rank the rest of these shows, they’re listed chronologically:

Walter Ego at Otto’s, 1/28/12 – the witty, brilliantly lyrical multi- instrumentalist/songwriter, minus his usual theatrical shtick, instead running through one clever, pun-infused, catchy song after another.

Eva Salina at the Ukrainian National Home, 3/31/12 – this was the debut performance of brilliant Balkan chanteuse Eva Salina Primack’s new band with Frank London on trumpet and Patrick Farrell on accordion. She swayed, lost in the music and sang her heart out in a bunch of different languages over the haunting pulse behind her.

Closing night at Lakeside Lounge, 4/30/12 with co-owner Eric Ambel’s Roscoe Trio, Lenny Kaye from Patti Smith’s band, Mary Lee Kortes, Boo Reiners from Demolition String Band, Charlene McPherson from Spanking Charlene and many others giving the legendary East Village rock venue a mighty sendoff.

Little Annie, Paul Wallfisch and David J at the Delancey, 5/7/12 – the smoky, sureallistically hilarious noir cabaret chanteuse, Botanica’s brilliant keyboardist playing three sets, and the legendary Bauhaus bassist/songwriter/playwright at the top of their brooding noir game.

Ben Von Wildenhaus at Zebulon, 5/14/12 – at one of his final shows before leaving town, the noir guitarist played solo through a loop pedal and turned the club into a set from Twin Peaks.

LJ Murphy & the Accomplices at Otto’s,  6/16/12 – backed by the ferocious piano of Patrick McLellan, Tommy Hochscheid’s classic Stax/Volt guitar attack and a swinging rhythm section, the NYC noir rock legend careened through a politically-charged set of songs from his reportedly phenomenal forthcoming 2013 album.

Black Sea Hotel in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, 6/17/12 – the trio of Willa Roberts, Corinna Snyder and Sarah Small sang their own otherworldly, hypnotic a-cappella arrangements of surreal Bulgarian folk songs from across the centuries, their voices hauntingly echoing in the cavernous space of an old synagogue.

Veveritse Brass Band at Barbes, 6/28/12 – over the absolutely psychedelic, bubbly pulse of the trubas, this ten-piece Balkan jam band burned and roared and turned the club’s back room into a cauldron of menacing chromatics and minor keys.

Kotorino at Joe’s Pub, 6/29/12 – transcending a series of snafus with the sound system, the lush, artsy chamber-steampunk band evoked other countries and other centuries throughout a set that was as jaunty and fun as it was haunting.

Aaron Blount of Knife in the Water with Jack Martin from Dimestore Dance Band at Zirzamin, 7/9/12  – although the two hadn’t rehearsed, Martin evoked the ghost of Django Reinhardt against the reverb cloud swirling from Blount’s guitar amp, through a mix of moody, gloomy southwestern gothic songs.

Magges at Athens Square Park in Astoria, 7/10/12 – the Greek psychedelic rockers played a long show of spiky, often haunting songs spiced with Susan Mitchell’s soaring electric violin and Kyriakos Metaxas’ sizzling electric bouzouki – it seemed that the whole neighborhood stuck around for most of it. Too bad there wasn’t any ouzo.

Neko Case out back of the World Financial Center, 7/12/12 – the stage monitors weren’t working, which messed up opening act Charles Bradley’s set, but Case, Kelly Hogan and the rest of the band didn’t let it phase them, switching up their set list and playing a raw, intense set of noir Americana.

Niyaz at Drom, 7/22/12 – a  long, mesmerizing cd release show by the artsy Canadian-Persian dance/trance ensemble, frontwoman Azam Ali slowly and elegantly raising the energy from suspenseful to ecstatic as it went on.

Dimestore Dance Band at Zirzamin, 7/23/12 – since reviving this group, guitarist Jack Martin has become even more powerful, more offhandedly savage and intense than he was when he was leading them back in the mid-zeros when this witty yet plaintive gypsy/ragtime/jazz band was one of the finest acts in the Tonic scene. This show was a welcome return.

The Secret Trio, Ilhan Ersahin and Selda Bagcan at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, 7/28/12 – the annual “Turkish Woodstock” began with short sets of haunting classical instrumentals, psychedelic jazz and then the American debut of the legendary psychedelic rock firebrand and freedom fighter whose pro-democracy activism landed her in jail at one point.

Bettye LaVette at Madison Square Park, 8/8/12 – the charismatic underground soul legend took songs from acts as diverse as George Jones, Paul McCartney and Sinead O’Connor and made them wrenchingly her own, a portrait of endless struggle followed finally by transcendence.

Bombay Rickey at Barbes, 8/11/12 – jaunty, jangly, surfy , psychedelic Bollywood rock fun, with guitar, accordion and frontwoman Kamala Sankaram’s amazing operatic vocals.

Daniel Kahn & the  Painted Bird at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, 8/12/12 – grim, politically spot-on, lyrically brilliant klezmer-rock songwriting from the Berlin-based bandleader backed by an inspired New York pickup group.

Ulrich Ziegler at Barbes, 8/17/12 – of all the single-band shows, this was the year’s most intense, over an hour of eerie. reverb-driven noir cinematic instrumentals from genius guitarist Stephen Ulrich and his inspired colleague Itamar Ziegler, celebrating the release of the album rated best of 2012 here.

The Byzan-Tones at Zebulon, 8/22/12 – the recently resurrected Greek psychedelic surf rockers traded in the electric oud for Steve Antonakos’ lead guitar, and the result sent the haunting, Middle Eastern-fueled energy through the roof.

J O’Brien and Beninghove’s Hangmen at Zirzamin, 9/10/12 – a fascinatingly lyrical, characteristically witty set, solo on twelve-string guitar, by the former Dog Show frontman followed by New York’s best noir soundtrack jazz band at their most intense and psychedelic.

The Strawbs at B.B. King’s, 9/11/12 – it’s amazing how almost 45 years after the psychedelic/Britfolk/art-rock band began, they still sound strong, their lyrical anthems still resonant even in a stripped-down acoustic trio setting.

Sam Llanas at Zirzamin, 9/11/12 – rushing downtown to catch a solo show by the former BoDeans frontman paid off with a riveting, haunting set of brooding, austerely nocturnal songs, especially when J O’Brien joined him on bass.

Sex Mob at the World Financial Center, 9/27/12 – the downtown jazz legends got the atrium echoing with a hypnotic, absolutely menacing set of classic Nino Rota film themes – and they didn’t even play the Godfather.

Julia Haltigan at 11th St. Bar, 10/2/12 – the eclectic southwestern gothic/Americana/soul siren and songwriter at the top of her torchy, sultry, intense game, backed by a brilliant, jazzy band.

M Shanghai String Band‘s cd release show at the Jalopy, 10/5/12 – an hour of cameos from too many New York Americana luminaries to name, followed by two long sets from the massive oldschool string band, moving energetically from bluegrass, to Appalachian, to sea chanteys, gypsy sounds and Britfolk, sometimes fiery and intense, sometimes hilarious.

Theo Bleckmann backed by ACME, crooning Phil Kline song cycles at BAM, 10/25/12 – this was the premiere of Kline’s lushly enveloping chamber-rock arrangements of his acerbically hilarious Rumsfeld Songs, his eclectic Vietnam-themed Zippo Songs and his brand-new, luridly haunting new Sinatra-inspired cycle, Out Cold.

The Arturo O’Farrill Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra at Symphony Space, 11/2/12 – in the wake of the hurricane, O’Farrill decided to put on a couple of free concerts to lift peoples’ spirits. This was the first and better of the two nights, the brilliant latin big band pianist joined by special guests including Anat Cohen, Sex Mob’s Steven Bernstein, Rafi Malkiel and Larry Harlow, playing long, broodingly intense, towering themes, many of them based on classic Jewish melodies.

Katie Elevitch at Zirzamin, 12/16/12  – goes to show that you can’t really count the year’s best concerts until the year’s almost over. Backed by her fantastic four-piece band, the haunting, intense rock siren improvised lyrics, roared, whispered and seduced the crowd in the plush space with her voice and her achingly soul-inspired songwriting.

Elegantly Drifting Art-Rock from the Snow at Union Hall

For Pierre de Gaillande to be playing in just two bands means he must be busy with other things – there was a point when he was playing art-rock with Melomane, and the Snow, and doing more of an indie thing in Morex Optimo, and also getting his Bad Reputation project, which does English-language versions of Georges Brassens songs, off the ground. Last night at Union Hall, de Gaillande and co-bandleader/keyboardist Hilary Downes led the Snow through a haunting, somewhat stripped-down set of material from throughout the band’s career. To the songs’ credit, they sounded practically as lush with just acoustic guitar, keys, violin and trumpet as they do in their more lavish studio guise.

The show opened on a quietly intense, brooding note with Russians, a snidely allusive look back at the less desirable aftereffects of perestroika: “Mama I’m home, mama I’m sick, I ate too much candy, sucked too much liquor,” went the punchline. The band ended it with a long, creepy walk down the scale, ending with a single ominously sustained spaghetti western guitar chord. They followed that with a new song, a slow, steady, nocturnal art-rock ballad sung by Downes. True Dirt, an elegant chamber pop tune about getting messy – metaphorically, at least – kicked off with a big flamencoesque trumpet/guitar intro.

Downes sang the melancholy, metaphorically bristling Undertow with a richly nuanced, Julie London torchiness over the steady insistence of the guitar, the trumpet adding an unexpected jauntiness. They followed with a late Beatlesque art-folk ballad, its distantly aching atmosphere enhanced by Karl Meyer’s austere violin lines.

But everything wasn’t so serious. Union Hall for some reason has become a magnet for amusing cover bands – there’ll be a couple doing twisted  Hall & Oates and Dionne Warwick covers here on Halloween – and in keeping with that theme, Downes hammed it up – but just a little – by closing with a surprisingly plaintive version of Olivia Newton-John’s Hopelessly Devoted to You. Whatever you might think of ex-model pop singers, John Farrar – who wrote most of ONJ’s songs -wasn’t a bad tunesmith. It says a lot about the Snow that they’d be able to make something substantial out of one of them.

M Shanghai String Band Packs the Jalopy, Again

M Shanghai Strng Band’s sold-out cd release show at the Jalopy Friday night started at nine and ended a little before one in the morning. Brooklyn’s best-loved oldtime string band do it oldschool, Grand Old Opry style, virtually all ten band members stepping to the mic for a couple of bars at a time, an endless parade of hot licks and cool ideas. The parade of talent began before they did, with a series of cameos by their friends (when you have ten people in a band, that translates to a LOT of friends). Karla Schickele and Kristin Mueller each sang pensively catchy folk-pop songs; Pierre de Gaillande of the Snow contributed a couple of cleverly artsy, amusing acoustic rock and soul tunes; Jan Bell sang plaintive, bittersweet country waltzes, followed by a couple of eerie minor-key blues tunes, Ain’t Gonna Rain and Broken Arrow, sung ruggedly and rustically by Will Scott. And as much as taking the stage after Kelli Rae Powell could be a recipe for disaster – she’s a hard act to follow – M Shanghai took that chance. Nine months pregnant and looking ready to pop, she nonetheless made her way way through her best song, Don’t Slow Down, Zachary, playing up the comedy rather than the grimness of its rockers-on-the-road narrative. And with the indelibly catchy Bury Me in Iowa City – a track from her sensationally good, forthcoming live album, recorded at the Jalopy – she both set the stage and raised the bar for the headliners.

And they delivered. What a fun night this was! Their first set comprised the entirety of their eclectic new album, Two Thousand Pennies; the second was almost as long and took the energy even higher. In the style of an oldtime community band, everybody gets to contribute, some more than others. If there were any individual stars of this show, they were violinists Glendon Jones and Philippa Thompson, blending and contrasting styles – he’s got more of a gypsy bite, she typically goes for a more fluid country fiddle approach. One after another, band members traded off solos, harmonica player Dave Pollack handing off energetically to mandolinist Richard Morris, or to banjo player Hilary Hawke, or one of the violinists. But ultimately none of this would have mattered if the songs weren’t so good.

The new album is the best thing they’ve ever done. They began with the anxious steampunk sway of Sea Monster and its catchy major/minor changes, followed by Made in the Dark, an apprehensive, gypsy-flavored tango – this band goes far afield of traditional country music a lot of the time. Many of their songs – the dustbowl ballad Leaving Oklahoma, the stern seafarer’s narrative Sailor’s Snug Harbor, the rousing outlaw shuffle Dillinger and the British folk-style ballad O Lucy – could have been classics from Bakersfield, or Staten Island, or Yorkshire, decades or centuries ago. Shanghai Mountain lept from a stark banjo tune to a fiery bluegrass dance, while the catchy Two Thousand Pennies – the album’s title track – alluded to this era’s Great Depression.

Guitarist Matthew Schickele – who seems to be in charge of writing all this band’s funniest songs – led the bunch through a surprisingly sad, irony-tinged waltz, Marlene, as well as the Staten Island sea chantey and also the night’s most amusing song, Zombie Zombo. Morris sang Entropy, which began as an upbeat swing tune but quickly took on a disconcerting edge. Wrecking Ball Savior, with its fetching guy/girl harmonies and country gospel tinges, might be an anti-gentrification number, while Boxcars, sung with a carefree charm by Thompson, voiced a hobo’s defiantly optimitic point of view. Pollack, who’d been punctuating pretty much eveything with a boiterous bite, finally got the chance to take a long solo on the offhandedly ominous railroad ballad Sleeping Engineer and made the most of it.

The second set kicked off with stark twin fiddles and a raucously gypsy-fueled dance, Thompson out in front of the band. Guitarist Austin Hughes, who writes many of the bnad’s most memorable songs, sang a catchy gospel-tinged banjo tune. Schickele delivered Stay Calm, a deadpan Neil Young-flavored number. Thompson played spoons on a lickety-split bluegrass tune, and then singing saw on a haunting noir swing number a little later on. Drummer Brian Geltner, who’d held back with a terse groove all night, finally got to cut loose with a stomp on a lively, crescendoing country song lit up with more of those gorgeous harmonies and a searing Jones violin solo. And the most intense instrumental moment of the night was a casually menacing, all-too-brief cameo by clarinetist Ken Thompson – that’s how this band does it, they always leave you wanting more, even after two hours onstage. Like most of the best of the NYC country and oldtime Americana scene, they make the Jalopy their home: they’ll be there at 9 PM on Nov 3.