New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: political music

A Lusciously Jangly, Ferociously Relevant Masterpiece From Girls on Grass

Girls on Grass’ latest album Dirty Power – streaming at Bandcamp – has everything you could possibly want from a great rock record: slashing lyrics, soaring vocals, gorgeous harmonies, layers and layers of luscious guitar jangle and clang and roar, and tunesmithing that draws on styles from the 60s through the 80s. It’s fearlessly political, and it might be the best record released so far this year. Frontwoman Barbara Endes is on the shortlist of the best guitarists in all of rock – and she’s a great bassist too. Imagine the Dream Syndicate fronted by a woman, and produced by Eric Ambel (who was actually behind the board when this was made, and it’s one of the best projects he’s ever worked on). Girls on Grass are headlining one of the year’s best triplebills on May 12 at Coney Island Baby at around 9. Catchy, fun guy/girl indie soul band Sunshine Nights open the night at 7, followed by wickedly jangly surf/twang/country instrumentalists the Bakersfield Breakers at around 8. Cover is a ridiculously cheap $8.

The new album opens with Down at the Bottom, the harmonies of Endes and drummer Nancy Polstein rising over a soul-clap beat, spiced with icy twelve-string guitar jangle that’s part 60s Merseybeat, part 80s paisley underground psychedelia. Second guitarist David Weiss adds country-tinged twang as bassist Dave Mandl holds down an insistent groove, Endes reminding that all the best things are in the shadows and in the deepest waters. In status-grubbing real estate bubble-era New York, that subtext screams.

Street Fight is a cynical, sarcastic stomp, Weiss channeling Mick Taylor in simmering post-Chuck Berry mode, up to a slashing chromatic run. Friday Night is an indelibly simmering tableau, capturing the energy and anticipation of meeting a crush at what promises to be a hot show, chilling back by the soundboard, passing around a joint. The ending is an unexpectedly different kind of crush.

Got to Laugh to Keep From Crying, a bittersweet account of betrayal and stalker behavior, is one of the album’s most gorgeous songs, Endes’ clang against Weiss’ country twang. Two Places at Once shifts between amped-up. briskly shuffling Morricone spaghetti western and an eerily surfy Radio Birdman highway theme. Then the band burn through the garage rock riffage of the escape anthem Into the Sun, with a searing, chromatically-fueled guitar solo midway through: it sounds like that’s  Endes, but it might be Weiss too.

“Capitalism ruins everything worth doing,” Endes intones to a guy who’s only in it “For the cash, and the underage ass” in the album’s most overtly political track, Because Capitalism: the rhythm section hits a fast Motown beat as the guitars stab and burn. Endes got the inspiration for the wounded, crescendoing anthem John Doe  from the time the X bassist wrote a carpe diem message in her journal, with a “We gotta stick together” mantra that works on more than one level.

The loping desert rock instrumental Asesino sends a shout-out to an iconic Ventures hit, with hints of vintage Public Image Ltd. at the very end. “I come from superior genes,” the narcissist-in-charge brags over a swaying Flamin’ Groovies drive in Commander in Thief: the faux bombast of the guitars matches Endes’ sardonic lyric. The band wind up the album with Thoughts Are Free, with a slow, richly lingering Dream Syndicate-style intro, then picking up with a brisk country shuffle beat. “Got my money, never mind what’s happening behind the scenes,” Endes sings sarcastically. Look for this on the best albums of 2019 page at the end of the year.

Rev. Sekou Brings His High-Voltage Protest Soul and Gospel Anthems to the East Village

Rev. Sekou is akin to a Pops Staples for the post 2016 election era…or a St. Louis counterpart to New York’s Rev. Vince Anderson. Rev. Sekou’s ferocious debut album In Times Like These, written in the wake of that disastrous event, is streaming at youtube. Throughout his oldtime gospel-flavored anthems, there’s a fervent call-and-response seemingly made for the stage. The result is a nondenominational church of empowerment and searing insight that starts with the chorus of “We want freedom and we want it now!” in the album’s opening track. He’s playing Drom on March 6 at 10 PM; advance tix are $10.

He begins that first number, Resist – a homage to the Standing Rock protests – with a fragment of a speech he gave in Ferguson, Missouri during the protests subsequent to the murder of Michael Brown. “Future generations will say of you and me, ‘That’s been a generation that will not bow down,’” he reminds the crowd. Then he and the band launch into a fiery, insistent oldtime gospel anthem:

When they try and tell you who is and ain’t your neighbor
Resist!
One day won’t pay you and exploit your labor

The band are killer: behind Rev. Sekou, there’s Cody and Luther Dickinson a.k.a. the North Mississippi All-Stars, along with longtime Al Green organist Rev.  Charles Hodges, pedal steel player AJ Ghent, saxophonist Art Edmaiston and trumpeter Marc Franklin.

The title track is an insistent, deep gospel-fueled exhortation to get out into the streets because

In times like these we need a miracle
Ain’t nobody gonna save us
We’re the ones we’re waiting for

Then the group reinvent the Bob Marley classic Burning and Looting as a simmering, swaying blues ballad: the similarity between Kingston, 1975 and Ferguson, 2014 is unmistakable. “We who believe in freedom cannot rest now,” Rev. Sekou insists over a stark chain gang beat throughout the next track, We Who Believe.

Lord I Am Running (99 1/2 Won’t Do) is a red-neon ba-BUMP roadhouse blues, Ghent’s shivery steel trading off with Hodges’ defiantly jubilant organ riffs. Likewise, Ghent finally caps off the slow, insistent Muddy and Rough with a whirling, breathtaking crescendo.

Rev. Sekou’s fire-and-brimstone imagery in The Devil Finds Work offers similarly forceful reasons not to sell out, with a blistering guitar duel at the end. The take of Old Time Religion here is a long, imploring, rubato jam with a message of hope, leaving no doubt as to the escape subtext from the era when slaves sang it. Then the band pick up the pace with When the Spirit Says Move

“If love is a story, you don’t have one to tell,” Rev. Sekou drawls in the bitter but gorgeously arranged oldschool soul ballad Loving You Is Killing Me. He follows that with Will to Win, a bizarre attempt to bring in elements of free jazz and psychedelia. The album’s final cut is Problems (an epic original, not the Sex Pistols song). “The race is not given to the swift or the string but to the one who endures to the end,”  Rev. Sekou reminds over a spare, elegant piano backdrop. If you need a shot of adrenaline to get you through the interminable final months of the Trump era, this could be it.

Fearless Pro-Immigrant Advocacy and Catchy Tunes from Ani Cordero at Lincoln Center

“If you feel fed up with the current political situation, you can get out the streets…or you can sing along,” Ani Cordero teased the crowd at Lincoln Center last week.

““I’ve been to a lot of protests in the last three years,” the singer and multi-instrumentalist mused, her back to the Puerto Rican flag at the side of the stage. “How many of you have been to a Black Lives Matter protest?” she asked.

There was a small show of hands.

“We have to be there for each other across issues. There’s a lot of work to be done. So I’ll see you in the streets!” she grinned. “If you want to start some activism, see me after.”

When Cordero isn’t reinventing classic protest songs and freedom fighter anthems from every culture south of the border and throughout the Caribbean, she’s writing slashing, catchy janglerock tunes in both Spanish and English. Backed by a similarly eclectic, talented trio, this show was a mix of classics and politically-fueled new material from Cordero’s forthcoming album Machete. “We have some machetes over there,” she enthused, motioning to the far wall. “Don’t worry, they’re made of wood.”

Playing acoustic guitar, she opened with Caminando, a song “About immigrants and how we should support them,” she said succinctly before launching into the catchy, bouncy anthem, backed by accordion, punchy bass and drums. They wound it up with a soaring accordion solo – then the accordionist switched to bass, and the bassist picked up a gorgeous, vintage Danelectro, and they kicked off an even more emphatic, catchy love song, Pienso en Mi.

Cordero put down her acoustic gutar and picked up her maracas for a rocking take of Ay Choferito, a big Pueto Rican plena hit from the 30s. The drummer got the conga patch on his syndrum going as the guitar fired of a new wave funk line to jumpstart Sacalo, a fiery number from Cordero’s Querido Mundo album that works as a broadside against violence on many levels.

Introducing a starkly pulsing, surf-tinged take of El Pueblo Esta Harto (which translates as “The People Have Had It Up to Here), Cordero explained that “I love pretty much everyone, but there’s some people…you’ve got to get them out of here quick. There’s a guy who has a building over here…”  – she pointed in the direction of the Trump Tower and let the crowd figure out the rest.

They went back to accordion rock for a gritty take of the ranchera-rock opening track from the album, Corrupcion: “The corruption in Puerto Rico is kind of legendary now, but the US is really rising in the ranks,” Cordero noted.

She left the politics behind for a coy plena-rock number about meeting somebody who might have been a viable option, say, fifteen years ago but has  since timed out. The rest of the set included  loping border rock, an insistent new wave-flavored number with a coy bread-and-butter metaphor for politicians on the take. They closed the set with another metaphorically-charged new one, Mi Machete, the guitarist firing off some terse, jagged funk lines, Cordero energizing the crowd with her guiro over a repetitive dancefloor thump.

As optimistic as Cordero’s performance was, it was sad to see Lincoln Center’s Meera Dugal making her exit official with this show. After many months of being one of the very few programmers in town creating genuinely visionary, cross-pollinated performances across cultures and artistic disciplines, she’s earned three weeks in Mozambique (that’s where she’s headed). Happily, the Lincoln Center atrium space remains in good hands as far as booking is concerned: it earned the annual award for Best Manhattan Venue when Dugal was working here and is just as strong a contender for that designation now.

The concerts here – on Broadway just north of 62nd Street – run the gamut from sounds from all over the globe, to jazz, rock, and classical. This week’s free show is tonight, Feb 7 at  7:30 PM with the Navarra String Quartet playing Pēteris Vasks’ hauntingly dynamic String Quartet No. 4 and Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major. Admission is free; be aware that the mostly-monthly classical shows tend to be wildly popular with a neighborhood crowd, so show up early if you want a seat.

Multistylistic Defiance, Protest Songs and a Populist Film Score by Polymath Guitarist Marc Ribot

Once or twice a year, there always seems to be a brief series of shows aired by John Schaefer’s New Sounds on WNYC from the World Financial Center atrium where the Bang on a Can marathon took place for so many years. This year’s inaugural New Sounds theme is live film scores. The movies and music are free; showtime is 7:30 PM, but get there early if you want a seat. The first one is Jan 30 with Marc Ribot playing a live score to Charlie Chaplin’s silent film The Kid.

Ribot has toured this score before. What’s most unusual about it is that it’s solo acoustic. Then again, Ribot hardly needs amplification to validate his status as one of the world’s two greatest jazz guitarists (Bill Frisell is the other: that both are individualists who have never embraced straight-ahead postbop speaks for itself). Reviewing the score in the spring of 2015, this blog reported that “The opening theme here was a characteristic mix of jarring close harmonies and a little Americana. As the characters were introduced, Ribot hinted at flamenco and then ran the gamut of many idioms: enigmatic downtown jazz, oldtime C&W, plaintive early 20th century klezmer pop and eerie neoromanticism, to name a few. Familiar folk and pop themes peeked their heads in and quickly retreated.”

Needless to say, Chaplin’s populism dovetails with Ribot’s role as one of the most active musicians in the current wave of protest jazz. One recent album that personifies that description is his latest release YRU Still Here with his punkish project Ceramic Dog. Streaming at Bandcamp, it’s completely different from the Chaplin film score – or is it?

The album’s opening track, Personal Nancy is a mostly one-chord no wave stomp, a catalog of ways of having “the right to say fuck you.” Pennsylvania 6 6666, a vemomously cynical latin soul groove, speaks grim truth to white Christian power in the ostensibly idyllic town of Danville. And that’s Ribot on the horn solo too!

Agnes is a mashup of no wave and 13th Floor Elevators psychedelia, with a wry wah-wah interlude. Oral Sydney with a U is a wryly skronky funk instrumental with snappy bass, echoey organ and ridiculous over-the-top faux Hendrix riffage. The cynicism simmers just beneath the surface in the album’s title cut, rising to a deliciously noisy cauldron of guitar multitracks as the bluesy shuffle beat goes doublespeed.

Fueled by Ches Smith’s pummeling drums, Muslim Jewish Resistance is a broodingly anthemic, seethingly atmospheric shout-along in solidarity with both populations, equally divided and conquered by fascists over the years: it’s the album’s first moment where Donald Trump gets namechecked. Shut That Kid Up is the almost nine-minute Sonic Youth collaboration Neil Young could only dream of, while Fuck La Migra is a punk rap that needed to be written…and it’s a good thing that this guy did it, with a little Texas blues thrown in for maximum context.

Orthodoxy, featuring sitar from bassist Shahzad Ismaily (or is that Ribot playing through a sitar patch?), is the missing link between Kraftwerk, Ravi Shankar and the Brian Jonestown Massacre. Freak Freak Freak on the Peripherique – a snarky over-the-shoulder look at Ribot’s Live in Japan disco album with Mary Halvorson – might be a shout-out to the Gilets Jaunes and their struggle to depose their own Trumpie president. The album’s closing cut is a ridiculous, barely recognizable psychedelic remake of Rawhide, complete with vocoder, keening funeral organ and a 80s guitar interlude nicked from Public Image Ltd. Say it one more time: this guy can literally play anything and make it interesting.

Single of the Day 11/9/18 – A Scathing Soul Smash

Singer/multi-instrumentalist Alice Lee has been one of the brightest lights to emerge from the New York scene in recent years, a jazz singer at heart with deep soul roots but also an edgy experimental side. Much of her work could be the missing link between Nina Simone and Fiona Apple. This latest single, Me Too, (via youtube) nails a moment, and a movement: it could be the best song of the year.

Say it had it coming and I will own your game
Bury me standing and you will know my name

Single of the Day 11/7/18 – Fearless Female-Fronted Political Punk Rock

The 50 Ft. Furies are as politically spot-on and cynically funny as they are catchy. This all-female punk band speak truth to power with a better sense of humor than just about anybody out there. The sardonically titled Oscar namechecks the Stanford Rapist, Brock Turner, among other villains. Big up to guitarslinger Debra Devi for the heads-up about this one.

Rage Against the Machine in the Former Belly of the Beast

In their sold-out concert at the Park Avenue  Armory Wednesday night, cutting-edge 24-member choral ensemble the Crossing delivered a breathtakingly virtuosic rebuke to anyone who might think that rage is not all the rage these days. The Armory dates back to the 19th century and is decorated throughout with high quality Civil War memorabilia. According to heraldic engravings in all sorts of precious metals, sixty-five of New York’s entitled classes died fighting to keep the Union together. It’s hardly a stretch to consider that their patriotism may have reflected less of an endorsement of civil liberties for all Americans, black and white, than the desire to keep sources of raw materials in the south safe in the grip of northern banksters.

Conductor Donald Nally’s choice to stage the group’s performance there was as daring as it was obvious. Each room utilized for the concert’s two sets is rich with natural reverb. in a proud tradition that goes back long before Laurie Anderson‘s legendary performances at the Armory, this was yet another reclamation of the space in the name of something other than killing.

Eight of the pieces on the program were New York premieres. The trio of cellists Thomas Mesa, Arlen Hlusko and Sujin Lee opened with the subtly shifting, hypnotically circling riffs of David Lang’s Depart as the crowd filed in. The singers then took their places one by one and treated the audience to a night of daunting counterpoint, playfully challenging extended technique, kaleidoscopic interplay and glistering, often achingly enveloping polyphony.

Central to the program were two breathtaking pieces by Gabriel Jackson. Our Flags Are Wafting in Hope and Grief, with its cleverly expanding cell-like phrases and dramatic cadenzas, brought to life Latvian writer Doris Koreva’s poem addressing a crucial, pivotal historical moment from which there can be no return. There’s cruel ambiguity in its flag imagery; the ensemble’s  emphatic intensity weighed in on the side of the perils of nationalism rather than potential triumphs.

The similarly circling first segment of Jackson’s Rigwreck could have been dispensed with, but the diptych’s second part was as gripping as it is relevant, connecting the dots from the question of eternal vigilance to its absence in both the BP Gulf oil spill catastrophe, and also our own relationships. The pinpoint precision of the group’s gusts underscored the grim cautionary tale in Pierre Joris’ text, a fervent wakeup call about the corporate interests and money culture that pollute individual lives as toxically as the Gulf of Mexico and its coastline were in 2010.

Kile Smith’s Conversation on the Mountain – from his suite Where Flames a Word – gave the choir a wide-open field for all sorts of deft, subtly baroque-inflected call-and-response that twinkled and sometimes burst from every corner of the stage. A brief premiere, by Louis Andriessen rose to anguished close harmonies. By contrast, the group got to let off some steam with Ted Hearne’s Animals, voicing an entire Nile riverbank bestiary with unleashed abandon and an undercurrent of Orwellian cynicism.

The choice of opening the second half of the concert with the knifes-edge close harmonies of Suzanne Giraud’s Johannisbaum instantly set the tone for the unease of the rest of the program, the cellists joined by a trio of soprano Abigail Chapman, mezzo-soprano Elisa Sutherland and a masterfully precise blonde woman whose image hasn’t yet made it to Google. Unfair as it is to single out a singer from a performance where selfless teamwork is so crucial, Sutherland’s soul-infused expressiveness and unselfconscious joie de vivre explain why she was front and center throughout much of the show.

There was also hypnotic, atmospheric rapture in Sebastian Currier’s Sanctus, from his Night Mass, and a final, wistfully precarious contemplation of our ongoing existence by Lang. Needless to say, it was a sobering idea to take home.

The Crossing’s next concert, on Sept 29 at 8 PM features indie classical chamber group International Contemporary Ensemble, with works by Hearne, Lang and Caroline Shaw at Montclair State University’s Kasser Theatre. Tix are $30; a $10 shuttle bus leaves from behind Port Authority about an hour and a half before the show. It’s about a 45-minute ride from Manhattan. 

Two Thirds of a Potentially Magical Triplebill Revisited at the Met Tonight

More about that great triplebill staged by the World Music Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art tonight, March 24 at 7 PM: it’s a reprise of two thirds of what should have been the best concert of 2017 but wasn’t. The problem wasn’t the artists on the bill: it was the sound. But the Rogers Auditorium at the Met has superb sonics. Central Park Summerstage is an outdoor venue and can’t compare, and although the sound there last summer was usually pretty good, it was problematic that August evening when two charismatic singers with North African ancestry, Emel Mathlouthi and Alsarah led their respective bands, opening for the godfather of Ethio-jazz, Mulatu Astatke.

Mathlouthi and Alsarah & the Nubatones are both on tonight’s bill along with Jordanian chanteuse Farah Siraj, and as of this morning it wasn’t sold out, probably because of the price, $35. But if you have the cash, it’s worth it, especially if you figure that each artist is only about twelve bucks apiece.

On one hand, the Central Park gig was a chance for each woman to put their strengths front and center. Both draw on a long tradition of allusive, imagistic classical Arabic poetry for their lyrics and subject matter. Alsarah’s kinetic dancefloor anthems address themes of Nubian longing and displacement in Aswa Dam-era Egypt. Mathlouthi’s icy, cinematic art-rock opaquely references struggle and resistance: in her formative years, she was a heroine of the  Arab Spring in her native Tunisia.

Alsarah’s set kicked off the afternoon. Her not-so-secret weapon is oudist Brandon Terzic, whose rippling microtones drove the rise and fall of the songs. It wasn’t til the end that he got a chance to stretch out and solo; the time out, the band’s most wildly applauded solo spot was a boomy trip through a funhouse mirror of North African rhythms from master percussionist Rami El Asser. Given less time onstage than her epic album release show at Flushing Town Hall back in the spring of 2016, the bandleader didn’t talk to the audience as much but still found room to mention how the Nubians’ forced relocation to cities mirrors the ongoing refugee crisis in the Middle East as well as anti-immigrant violence here at home.

Mathlouthi was next on the bill. Her not-so-secret weapon is her voice, a powerful weapon that began looming and eventually took some dramatic flights upward. Backed only by keys and drums, she stood more or less motionless, drawing the crowd in. But while the stage monitors were probably working, the PA wasn’t. Midway through the show, the atmospheric keys that have been a major part of her sound lately disappeared from the mix and didn’t return until almost the end. Much as her voice was strong against the beats – a trippy, techy electroacoustic mix – the grandeur and angst of her songwriting never reached altitude. As with the opening act, she didn’t interact with the crowd as much as at her own epic show at the Global Beat Festival downtown back in 2015: “The world’s biggest terrorist is capitalism,” was her most acerbic comment.

Mulatu Astatke headlined. It was strange to see that the space wasn’t completely sold out for the guy who, if he didn’t invent Ethiopian jazz, has done more to bring it to a global audience than anyone else. Joined by an inspired, horn-spiced pickup group including but not limited to Jason Lindner on keys, Marcus Gilmore on drums and Roman Diaz on congas, Astatke delivered a haunting, gracefully rippling,  chromatic mix of mostly midtempo numbers punctuated by a very long percussion interlude. He took the lead on electric piano on most of the tunes, Lindner holding his own when taking over on the techier songs and taking them subtly toward P-Funk territory without ripping their austere fabric. It was great to finally get to see Astatke live, but a bad taste lingered. What an incredible show it would have been if the PA had been working for Mathlouthi.

The Resistance Revival Chorus Sing a Fiery, Fearless Benefit for Immigrant Rights

When the Resistance Revival Chorus hit the stage Tuesday night for the first of their rousing, oldschool gospel-style protest songs, there seemed to be about two dozen women in the group. By the time the show ended, individual choir members and special guests treating a sold-out crowd at City Winery to a tantalizing series of cameos, it seemed that the size of the chorus had doubled. Are they New York’s largest ensemble? At the rate they’re growing, they will be, and in the current political climate it’s not going to take long.

Much as booking a group with a ton of people in it is a surefire way to pack a club, there’s never been more of an audience for protest music. The chorus had put together a short video to kick off the show, tracing the history and profound influence of protest songs on this continent from field hollers and back-to-Africa anthems thinly disguised as Christian hymns, all the way to hip-hop.

There was a little bit of that, but most of the material was songs that drew on decades of soul music. And this was as much of a populist rally as concert. Three of the group’s founding members were organizers of the Women’s March on Washington earlier this year. They’re also affiliated with many pro-democracy and advocacy groups including Communities for Change and pro-immigrant organizations working under that umbrella. A couple of group leaders took the stage midway through the show and delivered a defiant, grimly entertaining bilingual English-Spanish account of the perils of being an undocumented immigrant, even in a so-called sanctuary city.

Laurie Anderson’s cameo was the funniest, with a bit of droll, satirical faux-autotune pop and a story about narrowly sidestepping what could have been a grisly stage mishap bookending a communal scream. The artist who got the crowd to scream even louder was Amy Leon, who otherwise held everybody rapt with her fearless, individualistic, witheringly acerbic blend of Nina Simone, Gil Scott-Heron and what might be called avant garde soul. She picked up where Simone left off with a misterioso take of Bob Dylan’s Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll and added her own scathingly insightful commentary on coping with white supremacy: things haven’t changed all that much in half a century.

Nigerian-American songstress Ayo – who has an album release show coming up at Drom this Dec 20 at 9:30 -,led her trio through a couple of spare, withering roots reggae tunes dealing with the murder of young black men at the hands of the police, and resistance in general. Trixie Whitley reached for similarly hypnotic ambience with a single psychedelic folk-blues number, solo on electric guitar. And a smaller subset of the choir got the crowd bouncing to their intricate interweave of voices, from Sam Cooke to classic gospel.

The catchiest of all the songs might have been the two by singer Alba Ponce De Leon and her band the Mighty Lions. The latin soul diptych they opened with veered into psychedelic Chicano Batman territory, then they raised the roof with the big, funky vintage-style soul anthem Love Army, which as the bandleader said, needed no explanation.

At one point, the chorus situated themselves throughout the room, for a neat stereo effect. At the end of the show, the whole crew finally made it onto the stage for a soaring, imperturbable take of their big youtube hit Under My Feet, where the narrative starts out at the rich man’s house and ends up at the White House speaking truth to power. And as one of the chorus’ founders reminded, their next performance may be at a rally or with a flashmob if it’s not at City Winery, which has become their home base. Pick an issue, find an advocacy group and then go out and represent – how ironic that at this point in history, we’ve never had so many to choose from.

In 2017, Every Day Is Halloween

Today’s Halloween track is Mike Rimbaud’s Midnight in America. It’s a slinky, vamping, funk-tinged psychedelic broadside that throws an appreciative not back at Gil Scott-Heron. “Nuclear codes for the game-show host, got his middle finger on the trigger…no protest, no privacy, wake up America!” The reference to that famously satanic Stones riff couldn’t be more spot-on.