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The Bryant Park Accordion Festival: Like a Free, Weekly Midtown Golden Fest

The Bryant Park accordion festival is like a free Midtown version of Golden Fest – except without the food. It could also be said that Golden Fest is a two-night, Brooklyn version of the Bryant Park festival, without the blankets and the lawn chairs. Either way, each is a bucket-list experience for New Yorkers. You’ll have to wait til next January 12-13 for Golden Fest 2019, but starting at 5:30 PM every Wednesday through Sept 12, you can see pretty much every global style of accordion music in Bryant Park. The grand finale is on Friday the 14th starting a half hour earlier.

While Golden Fest is a marathon feast that lasts into the wee hours, you can pop into Bryant Park after work and hang out for however long you want. Five different performers play short sets starting on the half hour at five different stations throughout the park until 7:30. Golden Fest is this country’s big celebration of music from across the Balkans and to some extent, the Middle East. While styles from those parts of the world are also part of the Bryant Park festival, so far there’s been a lot of music from south of the border.

It was fun to stop in by a couple of weeks ago to catch a set by Erica Mancini, who pretty much embodies what the festival is all about, considering how vast her stylistic range is. Last year she did blues and swing; her show last week was a slinky mix of cumbia, tango and a bolero. Playing both instrumentals and sad ballads and and singing in nuanced, plaintively modulated Spanish, she was backed by a sensationally good mandolinist who ran through a pedalboard for icy, watery textures, trippy delays and gritty noise loops.It was as if Chicha Libre got back together…with an even better singer out front.

Last week’s show was on the hottest day of the year. That Rachelle Garniez managed to get through four sets without sitting down, with that big box strapped to her back, was impressive enough. That she sang as soaringly and powerfully as she ever has, in that heat, was even more so. She’s probably the best songwriter of the past twenty years, bar none – and that’s not meant as a dis to Steve Wynn, or Hannah Fairchild, or Aimee Mann. Methodically and even energetically, Garniez made her way through Tourmaline, a wistful yet forcefully determined individualist’s waltz, then worked her way up from a suspenseful, atmospheric intro into the strutting, coy hokum blues innuendos of Medicine Man.

She flipped the script on Aesop by reimagining the tale of the ant and the grasshopper in a fairer world where a bon vivant shouldn’t have to choose antlike drudgery to survive. She also treated the crowd on the terrace on the Sixth Avenue side to a deadpan verse or two of the Stones’ Paint It Black – which in its own surreal way was just as twistedly fun as the Avengers’ cover – and also the lilting, pre-apocalyptic tropicalia of Silly Me, from her 2000 album Crazy Blood.

And playing button accordion, fiery Venezuelan Harold Rodriguez really worked up a sweat, backed by supple bass and percussion in a literally volcanic set of rapidfire cumbias, a merengue tune and a handful of vallenato standards that got the expat crew singing along. He’s at Barbes with the group on Sept 17 at 9:30 PM

This week’s installment of the festival, on Sept 5 starting at 5:30 PM features singer Eva Salina and accordionist Peter Stan playing haunting Romany ballads,  Cordeone doing Portuguese fado laments, bandoneonist Laura Vilche playing tango, and Romany swing accordionist Albert Behar, among many others.

The Spellbinding Rachelle Garniez Tops the Bill at This Year’s Bryant Park Accordion Festival

What’s the likelihood of being able to get what amounts to an intimate, personal show from the world’s greatest English-language songwriter? A handful of New Yorkers got to experience that at last night’s edition of the ongoing Bryant Park Accordion Festival, following Rachelle Garniez across the park to various stations for tantalizingly brief fifteen-minute mini-sets.

Even though there were two dozen other accordionists playing in the park’s four corners and next to the fountain on the Sixth Avenue side, it was impossible to resist taking in two sets from Garniez. What was most fascinating was to watch her mash up elements of latin, klezmer, zydeco, classical, punk rock and even a bit of opera, banging out one song after another without the hilariously surreal, politically-charged stream-of-consciousness intros and jams that have made her legendary among New York performers.

The best song of the night was Tourmaline, a bittersweet waltz that works on innumerable levels: ultimately, it’s about rugged individuality triumphing against all odds. Without any more fanfare, Garniez let the rest of her songs speak for themselves.

The funniest moment was during Jean-Claude Van Damme, a tongue-in-cheek shout-out to a pitchman for antidepressants. She got everybody laughing when she reached the part about certain personality traits that have to be brought under control – then hammered that word again, and again, until everybody within earshot got the message. The faux-operatic outro, where she took a flying leap to the very top of her formidable four-octave vocal range, was pretty funny too.

She also played the jaunty, cabaret-infused Just Because You Can (Doesn’t Mean You Should), whose corollary is “just because you should doesn’t mean you can,” along with the slyly strutting, seductive Medicine Man, packed with all kinds of coy double entendres. She’s emceeing the festival’s closing night a week from today on June 21 at 6 PM, which might be the single best concert of the year, a bill that includes the Bil Afrah Project, who recreate iconic Lebanese composer Ziad Rahbani’s legendary 1975 Bil Afrah album; pyrotechnic Romany accordionist Peter Stan’s new band Zlatni Balkan Zvuk, Brazilian accordionist Felipe Hostins’ new forro group Osnelda; and cumbia accordionist/crooner Gregorio Uribe leading his slinky big band in celebration of Colombian Independence Day.

The festival’s only drawback is that it’s such a feast that there isn’t time to see everybody on the bill. It was awfully cool last night to watch accordionist Simon Moushabeck make his way through Arabic modes with all sorts of enigmatic passing tones, in two abbreviated duo sets with oudist Brian Prunka, mixing up steady, serpentine originals with a Fairouz cover or two.

Further to the west, Sadys Rodrigo Espitia played equally slinky, catchy cumbia and vallenato numbers. When he forgot the words to the hit Cumbia Del Oriente, a woman in the crowd sauntered over to the mic: and sang them with serious Colombian pride.

It was also cool to get to watch popular busker and Thee Shambels accordionist Melissa Elledge jam out cinematic themes and a Johnny Cash classic, then make noir blues out of Beethoven. Late one night a couple of years ago in the Second Avenue F train station, after a Bowery Ballroom show, Elledge played what had to be the most heartwrenchingly gorgeous version of Erik Satie’s Gymnopedie No. 1 ever. So it was refreshing to be able to just chill on the grass and hear her think outside the box without the usual subway stresses. Garniez may be the world’s most brilliantly eclectic songwriter, but as an instrumentalist, Elledge is on the same page.

Before the big blowout on the 21st, there’s another night of mini-sets from another amazing cast of accordionists at Bryant Park on July 19 starting at 6 PM, with a lineup including avant garde and klezmer player Shoko Nagai, pan-Mediterranean wizard Ismail Butera, jazz luminary Will Holshouser and Ed Goldberg & the Odessa Klezmer Band.