New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: Raphael McGregor

Big Lazy Take Their Film Noir Sounds to Pleasantville

The house was full, and people were dancing. That’s inevitable at Big Lazy‘s monthly Friday night residency at Barbes, although it’s not what you would expect at a show by a band best known for film noir menace. Then again, you wouldn’t expect the bandleader to write a score for a PBS series about comedians, But composers who write for film and tv are expected to be able to create any mood the director wants.

The band have a long-awarited new album  due out later this summer. Frontman/guitarist Steve Ulrich’s latest batch of instrumental narratives are just as dark, maybe even darker at the center, although parts of them extend into much brigher terrain than the trio have typically explored since they got their start in what was then an incredibly fertile rock scene on the Lower East Side back in the 1990s.

Onstage, the group reinvent their material, old and new, sometimes to the point where it’s almost unrecognizable. Was that a 6/8 version of Uneasy Street, the slow, macabre centerpiece of their first album, that they played at last month’s show? Maybe. Or it could have been a new number: tritones and chromatics slink out of the shadows constantly throughout this band’s catalog. Ulrich went further out on a limb than uusal this time, pulling himself off the ledge with savage volleys of tremolo-picking, taking a machete to the music. Bassist Andrew Hall used his bow for long, stygian, resonant passages, especially when the band took the songs toward dub, a welcome return to a style the band took a plunge into back in the early zeros. Drummer Yuval Lion was in a subtle mood this time, icing the intros and outros and quieter moments with his cymbals, rims and hardware.

The familiar material got reivented and tweaked as usual, too. Princess Nicotine, inspired by a 20s dada silent film, wasn’t quite as lickety-split as usual: maybe the princess has switched to lights. Their cover of the Beatles’ Girl was even more of a dirge than usual. Loping big-sky themes took unexpected dips into the macabre, balanced by the tongue-in-cheek go-go theme Sizzle and Pops. Guest trumpeter CJ Camerieri’s moody lines intertwined with Ulrich’s similarly spare incisions while another guest, Brain Cloud lapsteel monster Raphael McGregor added slithery sustain and flickering ambience at the edges as the songs moved toward combustion point.

Big Lazy are back at Barbes at 10 PM on July 26. Singer/guitarist Pierre de Gaillande‘s edgy parlor pop band Bad Reputation – who continue to build a rich catalog of English translations of songs by French chansonnier maudit Georges Brassens – play at 8.

Brilliant, Sometimes Haunting Lapsteel Player Brings His Genre-Smashing Instrumentals to Freddy’s

To New York audiences, lapsteel virtuoso Raphael McGregor might be best known as a key ingredient in Brain Cloud, Dennis Lichtman’s western swing band. Before that, McGregor served as the source of the vintage country flavor in Nation Beat‘s driving mashup of Brazilian maracatu and Americana sounds. But he’s also a first-rate, eclectic composer and bandleader in his own right. In addiiton to his more-or-less weekly Monday 7 PM Barbes residency with Brain Cloud, he has a monthly residency at Freddy’s, where he’ll be on Nov 20 at 8 PM.

His most recent show at Barbes leading a band was a quartet gig with with Larry Eagle on drums, Jim Whitney on bass and Rob Hecht on violin. They opened with a moody oldschool noir soul vamp and quickly built it into a brooding rainy-day theme over Eagle’s tense shuffle beat. Hecht took his time and then went spiraling and sailing upwards. Why is it that blues riffs inevitably sound so cool when played by strings? McGregor had a hard act to follow so he walked the line between Lynchian atmosphere and an express-track scurry, then handed off to Whitney who picked up his bow and took the song all the way into the shadows.

McGregor began the night’s second number with a mournful solo lapsteel intro that moved slowly toward C&W and then shifted uneasily into moody swing. It was like a more animated take on the Friends of Dean Martinez doing oldtime string band music. After that, they put a swinging southwestern gothic spin on a Django Reinhardt tune.

They also did a couple of straight-up western swing numbers, a brisk trainwhistle romp and a fetching version of Waltz Across Texas With You: much as they were a lot of fun, McGregor was pleasantly surprised to find that the crowd was more interested in hearing his originals. They opened their second set with a piece that began as an Indian-inflected one-chord jam that morphed into a bluesy duel between violin and bass, followed by a Frisellian pastoral interlude and then back to trip-hop Indian funk – all that in under ten minutes. All this is just a small sampling of what McGregor could pull off at Freddy’s.

Surreal, Eclectic, Psychedelic Steel Guitar Instrumentals from Raphael McGregor

Raphael McGregor plays steel guitar, both the six and eight-string kinds, and there is no one else who sounds like him. Some of the instrumentals on his new album Fretless have a dusky, hallucinatory southwestern gothic feel, but he’s a lot more diverse than that, venturing as far afield as Greek-flavored psychedelic rock, southern-fried Allman Brothers sonics, klezmer and jazz. His supporting cast here has the same kind of outside-the-box imagination: Nick Russo on guitar, Jason Sypher on bass, Oran Etkin on alto sax and clarinet and Vinnie Sperazza on drums. McGregor likes very long songs – a couple here clock in at over ten minutes – and also very short songs, like the brief nocturnal interludes that open and close the album. Some of them you could call post-rock – Austin instrumental crew My Education come to mind – while others literally run the gamut. If you like dark psychedelic music, this is for you: the whole thing is streaming at McGregor’s Bandcamp page. He and the band are playing the album release show on Sat Feb 16 at 10 at Spike Hill.

The first of the long songs is TVM, the closest thing here to My Education – or Friends of Dean Martinez on steroids. Catchy, terse bass and Sperazza’s brilliantly nonchalant yet colorful brushwork keep the groove going, Russo growing more agitated against the warm swells of McGregor’s steel and then going completely unhinged. Etkin’s alto follows much more calmly; the song eventually winds out with an edgy three-way conversation and then a long, rising drum solo as the other instruments go in the opposite direction.

Southern Border works its way stealthfully from a ghostly desert theme to a  biting klezmer clarinet interlude that McGregor and Russo eventually ambush from both sides, then shift to a dark, intense, psychedelic Greek surf rock interlude that reminds a lot of the Byzan-Tones. By contrast, McGregor builds the long, hypnotic Lapocalypse methodically into a thousand-layer cake of loops, some ethereal, some savage, evoking the great British steel guitar virtuoso BJ Cole. A big-sky soundscape, Orangerie also works a slow groove, but with a distantly gypsyish flavor: pretty as it is, with Etkin’s carefree clarinet, there’s an inescapable undercurrent of unease. The last of the big numbers is Staircase, juxtaposing Dickie Betts-style southern boogie with more of that deliciously mysterious Mediterranean surf rock. Then the band takes it in a funky direction with nimble bass and circling sax and finally goes out on a joyously jazzy note.