New York Music Daily

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Tag: psychedelic music

This Year’s Out of the Woods Festival Opens with a Rare, Riveting Performance of Classic Indian Veena Music

This year’s edition of the Women’s Raga Massive’s annual Out of the Woods festival is even more diverse and exciting than last year’s installment. The collective – comprising the female talent in the Brooklyn Raga Massive, who play both traditional and very untraditional Indian and Indian-inspired sounds – put on a series of shows that feature their own talent base along with the most spectacular female players in Indian music from around the world.

Thursday night at the Jazz Gallery, the festival kicked off with what Women’s Raga Massive honcho and violinist Trina Basu described as a “mind-blowing” set by veena player Saraswathi Ranganathan. That description fit Ranganathan’s late set as well. Joined by her percussionist younger brother Ganapathi on mridangam barrel drum, she played with as much savagery as dreaminess in a rivetingly dynamic set based in compositions that ranged from the seventeenth century to the present.

The veena – the many-thousand-years-old ancestor of the sitar – is an increasing rarity in Indian music. Most people who play sit-down Indian fretted instruments learn the sitar instead – and these days, if you want the real maharaj of instruments, you go for the surbahar, with its wide range.

But the veena is special. Maybe more than any other Indian instrument, it has a singing quality, with a range comparable to the cello. Another point of comparison is the slide guitar, something Ranganathan is keenly aware of. She’s well versed in the blues – being based in Chicago might have something to do with that – to the point where, during two concise pieces utilizing modes very close to the American blues scale, there were moments where the music sounded like Chicago blues legend Hound Dog Taylor taking a plunge into the raga repertoire.

Maybe this is also a Chicago thing, but Ranganathan is also very funny, with a relentless, down-to-earth, self-effacing sense of humor. And it runs in the family. While most of the show was all about thrills and suspense, there was also a ridiculously vaudevillian duel between brother and sister: his boomy buffoonery clearly won that one.

Although the pieces on the bill were on the short side, comparatively speaking, typically in the ten to fifteen minute range, they seemed to go on much longer considering the dynamics Ranganathan packed into them. In lieu of the big chord-chopping crescendos that sitarists typically employ, she relied on ornamentation that was more tremoloing than shivery, along with some spine-tingling glissandos and triumphant, almost snarling curlicues as she’d end a phrase.

Her opening number, in as steady a 7/8 meter as you could possibly imagine, dated from the 1850s – a particularly turbulent time in Indian history. Her concluding tune was a catchy, insistent ode to prosperity from about half a century later. In between, she built brooding nocturnal ambience with modes that corresponded closely to the Arabic maqamat before lightening the mood yet at the same time picking up the pace in tandem with her brother. They got a standing ovation from an audience full of some of New York’s most formidable musicians.

The Out of the Woods festival continues this Thursday, March 21 at 7 PM at Joe’s Pub with a potently relevant, immigration-themed multimedia performance, Ask Hafiz, at Joe’s Pub. Based on author Sahar Muradi’s haphazard journey from Soviet-ruled Afghanistan to Queens, it draws on the age-old tradition of turning to poems by Hafiz for advice. There are songs by by edgy Iranian-American songwriter Haleh Liza, dance by Malini Srinivasan, and a band which also includes Basu, Adam Maalouf, Bala Skandan and Rich Stein. Cover is $20.

The Women’s Raga Massive Put on a Cutting Edge Indian Music Festival Starting Next Week

The Women’s Raga Massive represent the female contingent in the Brooklyn Raga Massive, the intrepid collective taking traditional Indian music to new places. Since there are still as many problems related to sexism and the glass ceiling in Indian music as there are anywhere else, the Women’s Raga Massive play an important role in providing a platform for this city’s formidable female talent base. The Women’s Raga Massive’s Out of the Woods Festival starts next week, with a fantastic lineup of shows.

It kicks off on March 14 with a rare New York appearance by veena virtuoso Saraswathi Ranganathan, who’s playing two sets, at 7:30 and 9:30 with her brother, Ganapathi, on mridangam at the Jazz Gallery. Cover is $20.

Then on March 16 starting at 11:30 AM, the Women’s Raga Massive are sponsoring a free roundtable discussion on empowerment, Metoo and sexism in South Asian artistic communities at the Rubin Museum of Art. It winds up at 2 with two of the world’s most lyrical, captivating Indian carnatic violinists, Trina Basu and Anjna Swaminathan “engaging together in an improvisational dialogue with an art piece of their choice during a special museum tour.” The concert by itself is $19/$14 stud/srs, but participants in the roundtable get to watch for free.

On March 21 at 7 PM there’s an extremely relevant immigration-themed multimedia performance, Ask Hafiz, at Joe’s Pub. It tells the story of writer Sahar Muradi’s tumultuous journey from Soviet-ruled Afghanistan to Queens. “Along the way, following an age-old practice, she turns to the book of poetry by Hafiz for advice. The answers are revealed through songs composed and sung by edgy Iranian-American songwriter Haleh Liza, dance choreographed and performed by Malini Srinivasan, with music by Adam Maalouf, Trina Basu, Bala Skandan and Rich Stein.” Cover is $20.

The festival winds up back at the Rubin Museum on the 29th at 7 with a performance by the Women’s Raga Massive featuring an especially potent lineup: santoorist Deepal Sanghvi Chodhari  – star of the early morning party at the 2017 Ragas Live Festival – plus powerhouse singer Roopa Mahadevan, with Roshni Samlal on tabla and Rajna Swaminathan on mridangam. Cover is  $30

The Women’s Raga Massive compilation album got a rave review here last year. In addition, many members of the Women’s Raga Massive are represented on the Ragas Live Festival compilation album, streaming at Bandcamp. That one’s almost sixteen hours of live performance at the annual allnight party that began in the WKCR studios in 2011 and includes material from the following six years.

It’s an embarrassment of riches. Having listened to about half of it since getting it last fall, it’s a mix of classic ragas played by some of the biggest names in Indian music, plus state-of-the-art originals and a handful of strange cross-genre collaborations that usually work. If you want to get somebody hooked on Indian music, introduce them to the Ravi Shankar performance of Raga Bhimpalasi at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, and this. And then bliss out with them.

The Women’s Raga Massive are well represented on it. Basu is all over it, most strikingly in an an absolutely gorgeous suite by her string band Karavika, moving from a wistful pastorale to several spine-tingling crescendos. Mahadevan delivers volley after volley of shivering, meticulously nuanced melismatics throughout a marathon forty-minute raga. And another fantastic singer, Mitali Bhawmik – who is not part of this spring’s festival – delivers calmer rapture throughout a similarly epic take of Raga Bihag.

Sameer Gupta Keeps Taking Indian Music to New Places

Sameer Gupta is one of the prime movers of New York’s most innovative Indian music reinventors, the Brooklyn Raga Massive (whose female contingent, the Women’s Raga Massive, have their amazing Out of the Woods Festival starting next week). Gupta is typical of the members of the collective in that his musical background encompasses both Indian music and other styles. He’s jazz pianist Marc Cary’s main man behind the drumkit, but he’s also a composer, bandleader and tabla player. He’s doing double duty this Saturday night, March 9 at 7:30 PM at the Chhandayan Center For Indian Music, 4 W 43rd Street #618, first in a trio set with sarangi player Rohan Misra and then with sitarist Rishab Sharma. Cover is $20.

Gupta’s latest album A Circle Has No Beginning is streaming at Bandcamp. It’s one of the most intricately trippy, dreamlike releases of the last several months, validating the argument that great drummers have the deepest address books because everybody wants to play with them. In this case, that means Cary plus Raga Massive peeps.

The opening track, Little Wheel Spin and Spin comes across as a swirling, psychedelic Indian update on bluesy, oldtime Appalachian music. Jaunty, acerbic violin from Arun Ramamurthy and Trina Basu soar along with Jay Gandhi’s bansuri flute over Cary’s bubbly Fender Rhodes piano, with an austere Marika Hughes cello solo in the middle.

With its tectonic sheets of violin plus ripples from Cary’s Rhodes and Brandee Younger’s harp, Taiwa alludes to the Doors, the Exorcist Theme and the Hollywood hills boudoir soul of Roy Ayers as much as any classic Indian carnatic theme. A bristling nocturne, Innocence in Harlem is an intoxicating blend of echoey Rhodes, stark violin and cello over matter-of-fact syncopation and a mutedly punchy Rashaan Carter bassline. Saxophonist Pawan Benjamin fuels a big crescendo amid the growing storm.

Come Take Everything opens in an echoey haze of atmospherics, then evokes the drama and majestry of classic Bollywood, then goes all dissociative and opaque before Gupta’s flurrying drums pull a series of fluttering voices back toward a punchy, syncopated center and finally a big cinematic coda. Two Faces of the Moon is much more easygoing, bansuri and violin intertwining elegantly, with some wry wah-wah in the background.

Tyagaraja Dreams in Brooklyn is as enveloping as it is insistent, a mix of leaping bansuri and string riffs over a straightforward pulse contrasting with busy bass. Likewise, With Blessings kicks off with a bass solo punching through the haze, then the bansuri and violin build a stark but anthemic interweave. A long, shivery solo from Gandhi introduces a little Jethro Tull into the mix; Gupta’s scampering drum solo enhances the playful vibe.

Crows at Sunset slowly coalesces out of a nebulous intro, then shifts between an uneasy string theme and kaleidoscopic atmosphere that eventually echoes a somber Coltrane classic: it’s rare that so many people can be soloing at the same time yet blend as well together as this crew does. Run for the Red Fort is the band at their most squirrelly and surreal; the album ends epically with almost twelve minutes worth of Prog-Raag Bhimpalasi. It’s here that the Raga Massive’s influence is strongest, from the flickering, droning but propulsive first part to the fluttering variations on the rather stern central riff, guest Neel Murgai’s sitar and Benjamin’s sax weaving amid the careening ambience.

Whether you call this Indian music, psychedelic rock, funk or jazz – and it’s all of those things – it’s absolutely unique and characteristic of the kind of alchemy that the Raga Massive can stir up.

Underground System Bring Their Trippy Afrobeat and Dancefloor Sounds to Two Hometown Gigs

Underground System are one of New York’s funnest party bands. They blend original Afrobeat jams with hard funk and psychedelia along with tinges of tropical and Mediterranean sounds. Charismatic frontwoman Domenica Fossati adds flute and percussion to the mix, and her allusive lyrics often tackle important sociopolitical issues. The band’s debut full-length album What Are You is streaming at Bandcamp; They’re at Bric Arts on March 7 at 8 PM, opening for mesmerizing Palestinian hip-hop/dancehall reggae/habibi pop band 47soul; advance tix are $15 and available at the front desk for those who want to avoid service charges. Underground System are also at C’Mon Everybody on March 22 at 11 for five bucks less.

The album’s opening number, Three’s a Charm has a loping goove, Peter Matson building contrasting layers of gritty guitar and sleek synth over a loopy, punchy backdrop supplied by drummer Yoshio Kobayashi and bassist Jonathan Granoff. They follow a brief, swirly flute-and-synth intro into Go, a hypnotic escape anthem for the dancefloor

As she does in many of her songs, Fossati codeswitches between Spanish and English in the sarcastic, confrontational Rent Party, Maria Eisen tossing in some extra spice with her baritone sax over a catchy, psychedelically looping bass riff,. The album’s title track has more pillowy ambience over a stabbing Afrobeat drive, Eisen adding a sailing, echoey solo overhead.

They keep a hypnotic disco pulse going throughout Just a Place, an organic take on EDM with loopy chicken-scratch guitar and allusions to the disorienting, displacing effects of gentrification. Fossati  swittches to Italian for over a looped Afrobeat bass riff in the brief Sebben (La Lega), followed by State of Mind, a return to the gritty/slick dichotomy of the album’s opening number

If New Order had a thing for Afrobeat back in the early 80s, they would have written something  like What’s It Gonna Take. The album’s final track is Nmani, a surreal mashup of synthy laptop pop and what sounds like Congolese mbira music. If you’re in the mood for psychedelic sounds that also move your feet, or party music that entertains your brain, this is your jam.

Trumpeter Steph Richards Brings Her Devious Sense of Humor to Lefferts Gardens Saturday Night

The cover illustration for trumpeter Steph Richards’ solo album Fullmoon (streaming at Bandcamp) shows an open palm holding what could be a postcard of the moon – a pretty warped moon, anyway. But when you click on the individual tracks to play them (on devices that play mp3s, anyway), it turns out that’s a phone the hand is holding, and you’re taking a selfie. Truth in advertising: Richards’ music is deviously fun. She’s bringing her horn and her pedal to a show at the Owl on March 2 at 9 PM; ten bucks in the tip bucket helps ensure she’ll make more appearances at that welcoming, well-appointed listening room.

The album’s opening track, New Moon is based around a catchy, repetitive two-note riff, spiced with gamelanesque electronic flickers via Dino J.A. Deane’s sampler, with unexpected squall at the end. The second number, Snare develops from a thicket of echo effects, insectile sounds and breathy bursts, to a wry evocation of a snare drum. Then, with Piano, Richards moves from desolate, echoey, minimalist phrases to wryly cheery upward swipes: the title doesn’t seem to have anything to do with either the instrument or the dynamic.

The coy humor of the atmospheric miniature Half Moon introduces the album’s first diptych, Gong, which develops into a querulous little march, then a weird kaleidoscope of polyrhythms. Timpani doesn’t sound anything like kettledrums; instead, it’s a funny bovine conversation that all of a sudden grows sinister – although the ending is ridiculously amusing. The album ends with the title track, Richards developing a complicated conversation out of late-night desolation in the first part, then a barnyard of the mind (or the valves). Her levity is contagious – and she’s capable of playing with a lot more savagery than she does here, something that wouldn’t be out of the question to expect Saturday night in Lefferts Gardens.

Barbes: Home Base For NYC’s Best Bands

The problem with Barbes – and if you run a music blog, this can be a problem – is that the hang is as good as the bands. If you’re trying to make your way into the music room and run into friends, always a hazard here, you might not make it past the bar. Which speaks to a couple of reasons why this well-loved Park Slope boite has won this blog’s Best Brooklyn Venue award three times in the past ten years or so.

A Monday night before Thanksgiving week last year was classic. The scheduled act had cancelled, but there was still a good crowd in the house. What to do? Somebody called somebody, and by eleven there was a pickup band – guitar, keys, bass and drums – onstage, playing better-than-serviceable covers of Peruvian psychedelic cumbia hits form the 60s and 70s. The best was a slinky, offhandedly sinister take of Sonido Amazonico, the chromatic classic which has become the national anthem of chicha, as psychedelic cumbia is called in Peru. Where else in New York could you possibly hear something like this…on a Monday night?

On Thanksgiving night, the two Guinean expat guitarists who lead the Mandingo Ambassadors played a rapturously intertwining set that drew a more-or-less straight line back to the spiky acoustic kora music that preceded the state-sponsored negritude movement of the 1960s. Without the horns that sometimes play with the band, the delicious starriness of the music resonated more than ever.

The night after that, there was a solid klezmer pickup band in the house. The night after that – yeah, it was a Barbes weekend – started with pianist Anthony Coleman going as far out into free jazz as he ever does, followed by a psychedelic take on nostalgic 60s and 70s Soviet pop by the Eastern Blokhedz and then an even more psychedelic set by Bombay Rickey, who switched from spaghetti western to sick jamband versions of Yma Symac cumbias to surf rock, Bollywood and finally an ominous shout-out to a prehistoric leviathan that’s been dead for twenty thousand years.

Sets in late November and January left no doubt that Slavic Soul Party are still this city’s #1 Balkan brass party band, whether they’re playing twisted Ellington covers, percolating Serbian Romany hits or their own hip-hop influenced tunes. A pit stop here early before opening night of Golden Fest to catch the Crooked Trio playing postbop jazz standards was a potent reminder that bandleader Oscar Noriega is just as brilliant a drummer as he is playing his many reed instruments.

Who knew that trumpeter Ben Holmes’ plaintive, bittersweet, sometimes klezmer, sometimes Balkan tinged themes would blend so well with Kyle Sanna’s lingering guitar jangle, as they did in their debut duo performance in December? Who expected this era’s darkest jamband, Big Lazy, to take their sultry noir cinematic themes and crime jazz tableaux further into the dub they were exploring twenty years ago, like they did right before the new year? Who would have guessed that the best song of the show by trombonist Bryan Drye’s Love Call Trio would be exactly that, a mutedly lurid come-on?

Where else can you hear a western swing band, with an allstar lineup to match Brain Cloud’s personnel, swaying their way through a knowingly ominous take of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s Look Down that Lonesome Road? Notwithstanding this embarrassment of riches, the best show of all here over the past few months might have been by Turkish ensemble Alhambra, featuring most of haunting singer Jenny Luna’s band Dolunay. Back in mid-December, they spun moody, serpentine themes of lost love, abandonment and desolation over Adam Good’s incisive, brooding oud and Ramy El Asser’s hynoptic, pointillistic percussion. Whether singing ancient Andalucian laments in Ladino, or similar fare in Turkish, Luna’s wounded nuance transcended any linguistic limitations.

There’s good music just about every night at Barbes, something no other venue in New York, or maybe the world, can boast.  Tomorrrow’s show, Feb 18 at Barbes is Brain Cloud at 7 followed at 9:30ish by ex-Chicha Libre keyboard sorcerer Josh Camp’s wryly psychedelic cumbia/tropicalia/dub band Locobeach. Slavic Soul Party are here the day after, Feb 19 at 9; Noriega and the Crooked Trio play most Fridays starting at 5:30. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Haunting Film Noir and Desert Rock Themes from Reverend Screaming Fingers

Reverend Screaming Fingers’ cinematic, surfy instrumental themes don’t often scream, but boy do they resonate. And there are no doubt films in development screaming out for these songs. The guitarist (real name: Lucio Menegon) layers colorful multitracks over a steady, low-key rhythm section for a mix of creepy noir themes, spaghetti western tunes and midtempo surf rock. The Desert Years, his new third volume in his series of Music for Driving and Film, is streaming at Bandcamp. Big Lazy’s highly anticipated new album isn’t out yet, but until then, this twangy, dusky masterpiece will do just fine. It’s a lock for one of the best albums of 2019.

Here Menegon is supported by a rotating rhythm section: Wally Ingram on drums, with Danny Frankel, Damian Lester, Kip Powell and Janie Cowan sharing bass duties.The opening track, No Destination starts out with a fleeting, insistent new wave guitar riff but quickly slinks into the shadows with a southwestern gothic ambience capped off midway through with a little Tex-Mex. Then the bandleader completely lfips the script with the tender, oldtimey country ballad Chapparal Kiss, with low-key mandolin over a graceful 6/8 sway.

Dream of the Desperado comes across as a mashup of rapt Japanese temple music mingled with slow-burn Black Lodge guitar that finally coalesces as a creepy slide guitar blues: it would be a solid track on any Big Lazy album. Monsoon Gully has snarling, distorted, serpentine guitar leads set to a gently tumbling cha-cha beat: Beninghove’s Hangmen are a good point of comparison.

Spare, spaciously fingerpicked guitar figures mingle above a backdrop of rain and tree frog samples throughout Funereal. Speaking of funereal, the organ beneath the loping, savagely crescendoing desert theme Dance of the Dust adds immensely to the ominous ambience.

Delicate tremolo-picking beneath lingering reverbtoned riffs raises the suspense in Yuma Interlude, up to a tantalizing exchange of riffs in both channels, then back down again. Lost Alien Highway slowly builds into a simmering roadhouse blues. Almost Home is a lively blend of Buck Owens twang and roller-rink organ theme. The final cut is Rattler Ranch, an upbeat, catchy, woodsy groove for guitar and bass.

Vast, Hypnotic Asian Psychedelic Jams and a Rare Bushwick Show by the Drunken Foreigner Band

The Drunken Foreigner Band play epic, uneasily mesmerizing psychedelic rock jams on old folk tunes from Laos and Thailand. They’re sort of the Chicha Libre of music from that part of the world – or imagine a more atmospheric, enveloping Kikagaku Moyo. The Drunken Foreigner Band are playing a rare live show on Feb 8 at 8 PM at Secret Project Robot; the cover charge is also a secret, but’s probably a safe bet to assume that it’s ten bucks.

The band’s 2018 release White Guy Disease – a second sardonic reference to musical tourism by a bunch of Brooklyn stoners who couldn’t resist these exotic sounds – made the Best Albums of 2018 list here. But there’s another Drunken Foreigner Band album that fans of the best psychedelia should own. It’s the band’s 2015 debut, a live ep that’s almost shockingly still available as a free download at Bandcamp. The shock is that it’s still out there, considering that almost every time this blog has plugged a Bandcamp freebee, it’s disappeared soon thereafter. So grab it now!

They open it with “a new song we’ve just learned,” electric phin lute player Jim McHugh kicking it off with a catchy pentatonic wah-wah riff. He raises the surreal energy as the song goes on, organist Dave Kadden adding keening, funereal washes over the tireless pulse of drummer Jason Robira and bassist Peter Kerlin.

There’s a sax on the wild, sprawling, almost fourteen-minute second track, Molam Molam, spiraling over the rhythm section’s spring-loaded pulse. To call this an Asian take on 1967-era Country Joe & the Fish-style acid rock assumes that Country Joe & the Fish were this good. There are also very energetic vocals: one assumes that “Wah ah ya ah ya ah ya” means about the same thing in Thai and Khmer as it does in English. The third song is basically a throwaway, but what the hell, it’s a free album.

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.

Towering, Hypnotic, Psychedelic Korean Postrock Majesty from Black String at Lincoln Center

Korean postrock band Black String’s show at Lincoln Center last night seemed much more terse and minimalist than their feral set last year at Flushing Town Hall. Yet while the songs this time out seemed more focused and stripped-down, the music was no less psychedelic. There, bandleader Yoon Jeong Heo was all over the place on her geomungo bass zither, delivering every texture and timbre that can possibly be plucked – with a stick! – from that magical instrument. Here, she was more percussive, and in that sense, hypnotic, and the band followed suit.

At that Queens gig, guitarist Jean Oh let loose majestic, David Gilmour-esque flares and got lowdown with some gritty Marc Ribot skronk. Here, he played mostly big, icy, resonant block chords, adding contrasting delicate flavor via flickering electronics. Last night, it seemed more than ever that multi-reedman Aram Lee has become the group’s lead instrumentalist, switching between wood flutes of various sizes, running endless variations on simple pentatonic riffs, often with a bluesy majesty. Drummer Min Wang Hwang made the tricky time signatures and metric shifts look easy, whether adding marionettish cymbal accents, fullscale stomp on a couple of floor toms, or with the thump of his janggu barrel drum.

The enveloping, persistent unease brought to mind the insistent, grey grimness of Mogwai, Godspeed You Black Emperor at their most focused…or Jethro Tull playing a Glenn Branca symphony (that’s where the flute comes in). To max out the psychedelic factor, the band rode the sonic rollercoaster, often bringing the music down to a simple pairing of instruments: there seemed to be fewer moments when everyone was charging along in unison.

At one point, Heo marvelled that the ancient Korean folk themes which the group use as a stepping-off point seem absolutely avant garde today. She could just as easily have said no wave. Black String’s most hammeringly emphatic instrumentals would have been perfectly at home in the early 80s downtown scene.

The most poignant moment of the night was a gently imploring prayer of sorts wafting up from Lee’s flute: here as elsewhere, the electronics (when they were working) added subtle echo or sustain effects. The most explosive interlude was a ferocious geomungo-drum duel: it was astonishing to witness Heo snapping off so many volleys of notes against a single, pulsing low pedal tone.

They closed the set on an insistent, triumphant note with Song of the Sea, a mini-suite of ancient fishermen’s songs that Hwang delivered in his powerful pansori baritone, modulated with a wide-angle, Little Jimmy Scott-style vibrato.

What’s become most clear after seeing this band in two very different spaces – each with an excellent sound system – is that they need better gear. The guitar rig Oh was using delivered a cold, trebly, flat, transistor amp sound that died away too soon. And Heo needs some custom pickups for her geomungo. She was out of breath at the end of several numbers, yet there were too many places where her riffs got lost in the mix. A performer so mesmerizing to watch deserves to be heard.

The next free show at the atrium space at Lincoln Center on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is their more-or-less monthly salsa dance party. This time the featured band is oldschool Cuban-flavored charanga Son Sublime. Showtime is 7:30; the earlier you get there, the better the chances of getting in.