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The Spy From Cairo Keeps Making Deliciously Serpentine Middle Eastern Dub Sounds

For more than a decade, one-man band Moreno “Zeb” Visini has been making wildly psychedelic dubwise Middle Eastern dance music under the name The Spy From Cairo. Oud and saz lute are his main axes, but he’s also adept at keyboards, guitar, bass and drums. As usual, he plays everything with expertise and a wry sense of humor on his new vinyl record Animamundi, streaming at Bandcamp.

He was able to record the album in his home country of Italy despite the fascist restrictions which are still in place there, since he does all the music himself with a little transcontinental input from talented vocalists on the web. The central message is freedom. If there are bouncy castles at the rallies in Rome, this is the kind of stuff that freedom fighters (and their kids) could re-energize with. There are a ton of flavors on this record, all held together by lusciously chromatic maqams.

He gets off to a strong start with the title track. a brisk Egyptian reggae tune built around a catchy, scampering, biting oud lead track. Daf frame drum booms in the background, “Information of creation is stored in our DNA,” a rasta explains in the voiceover at the end. No doubt!

Asssembled around a catchy chromatic riff, Beautiful Baraka, featuring Adil Smaali is a chaabi-reggae-rap mashup with a couple of keyboards trading off in a wry call-and-response. Black Sea comes across as a trebly dub plate with wah-wah oud. Visini balances another slithery, catchy oud riff against microtonal roller-rink organ in Cosmic Pasha, then takes a deep plunge into Middle Eastern cumbia in Criminal, with Mambe Rodriguez taking a coy turn on vocals.

Divination has a more enigmatic Balkan-flavored tune, but Visini works anthemic string synth riffs into it. He goes back to a brisk cumbia groove, adding layers of cifteli lute and a scrambling oud solo in Extraterrestre, featuring Andalucian vocalist Carmen Estevez. Hamsa Shuffle has lusciously microtonal violin and a blippy, hypnotic cumbia sway, while Mizmirized has otherworldly zurna oboe and a swaying rai beat.

Visini ripples and pings his way through Qanun in Dub, a reggae tune and one of the most unselfconsciously gorgeous tracks on the record. Seeds of Culture is a loopy Indian-flavored song with snakecharmer ney flute over a rai rhythm and an unexpectedly bristling oud outro (is there such a word as “oudtro?”). The final cut, Ya Wuldani features guests Fatou Gozlan & Duo Darbar and is arguably the most psychedelic, dubwise number. It’s awfully early in the year to be talking about the best albums of 2022, but this is one of them.

A Friendly Pitchblende Night Drive With Suss

New York instrumentalists Suss have carved out a unique niche playing big-sky nocturnes more evocative of the wide open spaces of the west than, say, Long Island City. That’s where the band are pictured on the cover of their very accurately titled latest album, Night Suite, streaming at Bandcamp. This time, they’ve switched out the locales of the mind conjured up in their previous work, and switched in an overnight trip on Highway 66 from Gallup, New Mexico to the desert town of Needles, California, just across the Colorado River.

As the convoy drift out of Gallup, casual flickers from reverb guitar, pedal steel and starry guitar pedalboard textures begin to creep through the shadowy calm. Flagstaff, Arizona turns out to be a patchwork of stillness punctuated by the occasional passing big rig, fluorescent-lit all-night diner or distant train whistle, or so it would seem.

Further into Arizona, there’s Ash Fork, the most expansive tableau here with its organlike high-lonesome washes of sound. If Pink Floyd were a Tucson band, they would have sounded like this. Guessing that’s Pat Irwin’s guitar flaring gently over Jonathan Gregg’s pedal steel and Gary Lieb’s gently keening synth.

Hints of southwestern gothic – that’s either Bob Holmes or Irwin on guitar – reverberate on the low end. static misting the mix when the convoy reaches Kingman. The distant ghost of a Lynchian ballad wafts in as the group pull gently into their final destination

Finally, a Great Alan Parsons Live Record

Since most rock albums from the radio-and-records era are riddled with overdubs and were never meant to be replicated live, it follows that only a small percentage of bands from that time ever officially released a good live recording. So it would make sense to assume that the ultimate digital-clean studio band of the 70s and 80s, the Alan Parsons Project, would have been hard-pressed to deliver onstage, right?

But what if they had the ambition (and the financing) to make a live record with an orchestra? Procol Harum did, and that album ended up defining their career. The Moody Blues did it twice, with inspiring results. In the fall of 2021, Parsons and the latest incarnation of his band made an epic double-disc album and DVD with the Israel National Orchestra, One Note Symphony – Live In Tel Aviv, streaming at Spotify. That an act this old, let alone one assembled from almost all replacement parts, could pull it off at all is quite a feat. That the songs – some almost a half a century old – could sound so fresh and vigorous is astonishing. And the setlist is killer, weighted heavily by deep cuts rather than the top 40 singalongs.

What’s more, playing with the orchestra ends up exorcising the kind of roteness that inevitably creeps up on a band who’ve been playing the same old hits night after night for decades. Granted, this isn’t the same crew that gave us Pyramid or The Turn of a Friendly Card, but they are definitely committed to recreating a sound originated on instruments that very few musicians use anymore, let alone in concert.

The title song may be a musical joke, but it also seems to be a cautionary tale. While the Alan Parsons Project are best remembered for a long string of singles, they were addressing the dangers of digital technology and surveillance as far back as the mid-70s. “Any significantly advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” says the voiceover midway through the song: in this context, a word of warning.

In a stroke of serendipity. the orchestra are high in the mix, and their presence ropes in any tendency for the band to go over the top. And yet, they seem to be on a very loose leash: when Jeff Kollman or Dan Tracey’s guitars, or Todd Cooper’s sax, or Tom Brooks’ keys punch in for a flourish or a single bar, it hardly sounds scripted.

The orchestra play the first part of the big guitar solo in Damned If I Do before Kollman gets all shreddy. Interestingly, they don’t play the central synth hook, which mimics an orchestral woodwind section. The strings create an airy bittersweetness that’s been missing in Don’t Answer Me – Parsons’s moment to leave Phil Spector eating his dust – since forever.

Replacement lead singer P.J. Olsson strains to hit the high notes of Time, but the band elevate to an angst-fueled sweep even before the orchestra come in. The big guitars come out for Breakdown, the orchestra leading a triumphantly marching outro. In the global context of early 2022, hearing the crowd spontaneously breaking into a chant of “Freedom, freedom!” will give you chills.

From there they segue into the first Edgar Allan Poe number, The Raven, rising from hazy psychedelia to a peak with band and orchestra going full tilt, “Nevermore, nevermore, never!” A mighty gong hit separates a propulsive Lucifer from a puckishly rearranged, sharply truncated Mammagamma. The high point of the show is the epic Silence And I, which, forty years after it was released, finally gets the arrangement it deserves, from funeral-pillow ballad to Respighi-on-acid stomp.

The first disc winds up with I Wouldn’t Want To Be Like You and a surprisingly gospel-inflected, rampaging take of the individualist anthem Don’t Let It Show. The orchestra open disc two with an aptly witchy, deviously metal-tinged version of the famous Dukas classical theme The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. The band leap back in with a robust, refreshingly unhurried version of the anthem Standing On Higher Ground, then take a turn into catchy Matt Keating-esque folk rock with As Lights Fall, from the 2019 album The Secret.

I Can’t Get There From Here is not the haunting art-rock song from the Pyramid album but a low-key pop song from The Secret. Brooks’ warped faux-Chopin solo piano interlude that interrupts the big powerpop anthem Prime Time is bizarre, but the diptych of Sirius and Eye in the Sky gets transformed into an art-rock rollercoaster.

Old and Wise doesn’t have the luscious Procol Harum organ that the 90s version of the band used, but it does have one of the most dynamic arrangements here. A hard-edged, funky take of (The System Of) Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether makes a good setup up for the requisite Games People Play. How much does nostalgia play in this appreciation? Hell, at this point in history, anything from before March of 2020 sounds better than ever.

Never Mess With a Great Jazz Trumpeter: They Always Get Even in the End

When trumpeter Pete Rodriguez put out his sizzling 2013 album Caminando Con Papi, it seemed a little strange at the time that he would be based in Texas. He grew up as part of the Nuyorican musical intelligentsia. His father was Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez – one of the most individualistic and powerful crooners of the golden age of salsa – and his godfather is Johnny Pacheco. By the time he was in sixth grade, he was in his dad’s band.

How did the scion of such a storied New York musical legacy end up in Texas? He’d taken his family there to escape being racially profiled here. And he’d taken a college teaching job in Austin. Unfortunately, the erudite New Yorker found himself a fish out of water. Tensions rose, and as he tells it on his new album Obstacles – streaming at Sunnyside Records – he was forced out of a job. Long story short: never mess with a composer. They always get even in the end.

And revenge is really sweet here. This record is somewhat more dynamically paced than the nonstop visceral thrills of his last album. The quintet here is as formidable as the bandleader, who’s joined by John Ellis on tenor and soprano sax, Luis Perdomo on acoustic and electric piano, Ricardo Rodriguez on bass and Rudy Royston on drums.

They open with a brisk burner titled 50 – Rodriguez hit the big five-zero running and doesn’t show his age, through this sprint based on Coltrane’s Moment’s Notice. Gone in the blink of an eye? Rodriguez isn’t going out like that, matched by Ellis and Perdomo’s scampering precision.

Rodriguez’s moody vulnerability on the first part of Abraham, a diptych, is chilling, a somber, gospel-infused horn interweave growing over Royston’s stormy clusters. Then Perdomo switches to twinkly Rhodes, although it’s a long time before the pall finally lifts.

El Proceso begins as a soulful, swaying ballad, Rodriguez choosing his spots with a spring-loaded intensity as Perdomo and Royston fuel the upward drive to Ellis’ cheery soprano spirals and a mighty, flurrying coda. Academic Backstabbing 101 is a straight-up dis at a nemesis who believed that Chuck Wayne’s Solar is the toughest piece in jazz; Perdomo and the rest of the band make short work of some similarly trickily syncopated changes and Messiaenic tonalities.

There’s a distantly Monkish, wary sensibility to the low-key simmer of the racewalking Mi Ritmo and the dichotomy of darkly circling bass against percolating sax and piano. Triple Positive has a fond 70s soul influence beneath the syncopation, a tenderly spirited remembrance of someone whose courage never faltered throughout what turned out to be a fatal illness.

Austin & Alley is a briskly vivid vignette of children at play, set to the soberingly phantasmagorical backdrop of encroaching racism. The Clifford Brown version of Gigi Gryce’s Minority inspires the album’s steadily pouncing and swinging title track, the bandleader cutting loose and setting up Ellis’ terse, calm solo as the rhythm section scramble behind him, Perdomo’s brightly romping solo backing away for Royston’s rumbling coda. The band go back to soul-drenched ballad territory for Someone Else, slowly rising around Perdomo’s lingering, summery Rhodes.

The album’s last two cuts are disses. Mary Dick Ellen is a brief, eerily chattering depiction of workplace racism. The hard-charging swing tune FU John begins on a similar note. The sarcasm is priceless, especially when Perdomo gets involved, and way too good to give away. Rodriguez, meanwhile, rises above, unperturbed and carefree. The karmic message here seems to be that ultimately, it set Rodriguez free.

Allegra Levy Brings Her Nocturnal Reinventions to Birdland

Allegra Levy is the rare more-or-less straight-ahead jazz singer who writes her own material. It’s very good. Her latest album Looking at the Moon – streaming at youtube – is a departure for her, both musically and contentwise. It’s all covers, and the arrangements are especially intimate. What’s consistent with her previous albums is that this is a song cycle. It’s a bunch of tunes about the moon, and Levy’s vocals match the eclecticism of the selections. She’s playing Birdland tomorrow night, May 15 at 7 PM; you can get in for twenty bucks, a real steal at that joint.

The biggest shocker on the album turns out to be the best track: Nick Drake’s iconic Pink Moon reinvented as a duet with Tim Norton’s balletesque bass. The lingering dread in Levy’s delivery is only slightly more direct than the original. And Neil Young’s Harvest Moon turns out to be an apt vehicle for Levy’s minutely nuanced, somewhat misty vocals: this is her most Karrin Allyson-esque record. The comet trail from guitarist Alex Goodman as Levy eases into the third verse is sublime. Beyond those two numbers, most of the songs are familiar standards, although Levy’s approach is hardly conventional.

Her longtime collaborator, the brilliant pianist Carmen Staaf edges toward phantasmagoria with her steady,  roller rink-tinged piano throughout their take of Moon River, the nocturnal suspense enhanced by the absence of drums: that’s just Norton in back. I’ve Got the Sun in the Morning (And the Moon at Night) is a tentatively content quartet piece, Goodman adding a purist solo after a jaunty, bluesy one from Staaf.

Blue Moon gets a playful, rather pointillistic treatment that brings to mind Sofia Rei, especially as the band edge their way toward bossa nova. The mutedly dancing Vegas noir of Moon Ray looks back to the Nancy King version, while Moonlight in Vermont sounds nothing like Margaret Whiting: that one’s a hushed, spare duet with Goodman.

A low-key Moonglow is the least individualistic of the tracks here, although Norton’s minimalistic solo is tasty. By contrast, Levy really nails the coy humor in Polka Dots and Moonbeams: it’s a treat to hear Staaf’s starry righthand throughout the album, particularly on this track. No Moon at All has simmer, and distant unease, and sotto-voce joy: it brings to mind Champian Fulton in a rare hushed moment.

It’s Only a Paper Moon is the album’s funniest track: it’s an unusually fast song for the somewhat ironically named bandleader. And I’ll Be Seeing You is on the record since the last line begins with “I’ll be looking at the moon” – and because Steeplechase Records honcho Nils Winther wanted it. The only miss here is an attempt to salvage a morbidly cloying AM radio hit by a 70s folksinger who went by Yusuf Islam for a time, and supported the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. A fascist nutjob by any other name is still a fascist nutjob.

The Momenta Quartet Stage a New Classic of Classical Music for Children

How can you tell if a chamber music performance is appropriate for children? By how the kids react, for one. Yesterday morning, the Momenta Quartet’s boisterously amusing multimedia show, The Lost String Quartet – by their violist Stephanie Griffin – kept two busloads of five-year-olds engaged and for the most part equally well-behaved for over an hour. It’s one thing to keep a preschooler close to you, with the occasional reminder to sit still. Two whole posses of them, all surrounded by their fellow crazymakers, completely change the game.

The plot, based on N. M. Bodecker’s now out-of-print 1983 children’s book, concerns not a missing piece of music but a missing ensemble. The Momentas  cast themselves as the musicians, abetted by actor Fernando Villa Proal, who chewed the scenery with relish in multiple roles as emcee, truck driver, prison warden and several other personalities. The plot follows the misadventures of a quartet who have to deal with all sorts of vehicular drama on their way to a gig – late. And much as the humor is G-rated, it’s far more Carnival of the Animals than Peter and the Wolf. The group have to go down into the sewer at one point – ewwww! The kids loved that.

And like the Simpsons, the jokes have multiple levels of meaning, the musical ones especially. Adults, as well as older gradeschool children who have some familiarity with standard classical repertoire, will no doubt get a big kick out of them. In a mostly wordless performance, the group acquit themselves impressively as actors, in expressively vaudevillian roles. Are violinists Emilie-Anne Gendron and Alex Shiozaki really the merry prankster and space-case introvert in the group? Is cellist Michael Haas as dangerously stubborn as his role, or Griffin the quartet’s deus ex machina? That could be an inside joke.

Griffin’s score, some of it improvisational, is sublime, and the group sink their fangs into it, no small achievement considering the physical demands of the acting. Just the slithery, menacing, distantly Indian-tinged viola solo that opens the show, and appears later in disguise, is worth the price of admission. The deliberately educational moments, i.e. how a string quartet’s instruments differentiate from each other, are understated and flow seamlessly within the narrative.

As you would expect, a lot of the music – usually performed in configurations other than the full foursome – is pretty broad too, if hardly easy to play. Doppler effects, sirens, sad-face wah-wah riffs and the like pop up all over the place. But the rest is more carnivalesque than cartoonish There’s vastly more of a Bartok influence, or for that matter echoes of Luciano Berio or Jessica Pavone, than there is buffoonery.

What’s most impressive is that the quartet do double duty as what might, in tightlipped chamber music lingo, be called a hybrid ensemble. Who knew that Haas was such a capable percussionist, playing discernible melodies on found objects including a car door panel and oil pan? Or that Griffin could spiral around on melodica as if she was Augustus Pablo?

This is where the show’s subversive undercurrent takes centerstage What the Momenta Quartet are proposing is tthat if we expose kids to the avant garde when they’re young enough, they’ll be smart enough to laugh at any older, know-it-all Grinch who might sneer, “Oh, contemporary classical music, it’s so harsh and boring and pretentious.”

This piece has a huge upside. The quartet could tour it if they could find the time – it’s hard to imagine a cultural center in this country who wouldn’t stage it. It’s probably an overstatement to suggest that it could be a Broadway hit. Then again, kids are certainly ready for it. Be the first family on your block to see it when the Momenta Quartet’s perform it tomorrow, Dec 10, with sets at 10 and 11 AM at the Time In Children’s Arts Initiative, 227 W. 29th St, Studio 4R just north of FIT. Admission is free, and reservations are highly recommended.

Palestinian Oud Virtuosos Le Trio Joubran Play a Historic Lincoln Center Concert This July

One of the most important and potentially transcendent concerts of the year is scheduled for this July 29 at 8 PM, where harrowing Middle Eastern oud ensemble Le Trio Joubran play the US premiere of their elegaic suite of settings of poems by their late collaborator Mahmoud Darwish at the Lynch Theater at John Jay College,524 W 59th St. The concert is part of this year’s Lincoln Center Festival; $30 seats are still available as of today.

 For the last several years of the great Palestinian poet’s life, the three brothers accompanied him onstage while he read his incendiary, poignant explorations of exile and resistance. To get an idea of what the concert could be like, here’s a look at their 2010 live DVD In the Shadow of Words, adapted from the original review at New York Music Daily’s sister blog Lucid Culture. [To be consistent with the DVD  booklet, the French spelling,“Darwich,” is used throughout the review rather than the English transliteration, “Darwish.” This blog takes responsibility for any errors in translation].

Poets are the rock stars of the Middle East – the day the Bush regime invaded Iraq, the number one bestseller there was a book of poetry. Which is often the case. Iconic Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwich could read to a sold-out stadium crowd of 150,000. He died unexpectedly in August of 2008; forty days later, extraordinary Palestinian oudist brothers the Trio Joubran – who often served as Darwich’s backing band, touring the world with him – gave a memorial concert at the Cultural Palace in Ramallah, playing along to a recording of his words. The footage on their latest DVD A L’ombre des mots (“In the Shadow of Words,” whose audio is streaming at Bandcamp) was filmed at that concert.

It is extraordinarily moving: dark, pensive, terse yet often lushly arranged instrumentals that sometimes accompany Darwich’s recorded voice, other times providing an overture – or, more frequently, a requiem. Darwich’s powerful, insistent baritone keeps perfect time, allowing the musicians to do what they always did: if it’s possible to have onstage chemistry with a ghost, they achieve that. Shots of the band stark against a candlelit black background heighten the profound sadness that permeates this, yet the indomitability of Darwich’s metaphorically-charged words and his voice linger resonantly. Darwich speaks in Arabic with French subtitles on the DVD.

Darwich was first and foremost an artist, fiercely proud of his Palestinian identity and therefore seen as a voice for his people. But he bore that cross uneasily: once a member of the PLO’s inner circle, he quit the job. Although politically charged, Darwich’s work always sought to raise the bar, to take the state of his art to the next level: through that, his writing achieved a universality. The poems here will strike a chord with anyone who’s ever cheated death, missed their home, been outraged by an atrocity or numbed by a series of them.

Darwich was both a poet of his time and one for the ages. This DVD contains four works, notably the long suite The Dice Player, his last. On the surface, it’s a question of identity; iot ends with a taunt in the face of death. Fearlessly metaphorical, it contemplates the cruelty of fate yet celebrates good fortune, by implication the fate of being Palestinian.

The concert begins with the trio onstage, closeups alternated with shots taken at a distance, a characteristically understated requiem. A stately, portentous drumbeat and then a cymbal crash signal the beginning the theme, a forest of ouds from the three brothers, Samir, Wissam and Adnan. Darwich’s images are rich with irony and unease: “I had the good fortune to be cousin to divinity and the bad fortune that the cross would be our eternal ladder to tomorrow,” he states emphatically early on in the piece. He addresses the issue of love under an occupation: “Wait for it,” he cautions, again and again, “As if you were two witnesses to what you’re saving for tomorrow, take it toward the death you desire, and wait for it.”

“I didn’t play any role in what I was or will be, such is luck and luck doesn’t have a name…Narcissus would have freed himself if he’d broken the mirror…then again he would never have become a legend,” Darwich muses sardonically. “A mirage is a guidebook in the desert – without the mirage, there’s no more searching for water.” As the poem winds up, through an ominous, swaying anthem, several subsequent themes and pregnant pauses, the bitterness is overwhelming: “I would have become an amnesiac if I’d remembered my dreams.” But in the end he’s relishing his ability to survive, even if it’s simply the survival skill of an old man who knows to call the doctor before it’s too late.

There’s also the defiant On This Land, a offhandedly searing, imagistic tribute to Palestine and the Palestinians, the somber Rhyme for the Mu-allaqat (a series of seven canonical medieval Arabic poems) and finally The Mural, its narrator bitterly cataloging things which are his, ostensibly to be grateful for. “Like Christ on the water, I’ve walked in my vision, but I came down off the cross because I’m afraid of heights,” Darwich announces early on. And as much as he has, there’s more that he doesn’t. “History laughs at its victims, she throws them a look as she passes by.” And the one thing he doesn’t have that he wants above anything else? “I don’t belong to myself,” the exile repeats again and again as the restrained anguish of the ouds rises behind him. The DVD ends with the group playing over a shot of the mourners at the vigil outside.

It’s hard to imagine a more potently effective introduction to Darwich’s work than this – longtime fans, Arabic and French speakers alike will want this in their collections. For anyone who doesn’t speak either language, it’s a somberly majestic, haunting, lushly arranged masterpiece – the three ouds and the drummer together sound like an oud orchestra.

Tamara Hey Represents for Real New Yorkers at the Slipper Room

The dichotomy that runs through Tamara Hey‘s music is edgy, funny, picturesque New York-centric lyrics set to catchy, upbeat tunes with a purist pop sensibliity. Likewise, she balances the crystalline, unselfconscious charm of her vocals with what can be devastatingly amusing, deadpan between-song commentary. Her music has special resonance for those who consider themselves oldschool New Yorkers: Hey is sort of a songwriting Woody Allen of the Lower East Side…minus the celebrity and the ugly backstory. She’s playing the Slipper Room (Orchard and Stanton, upstairs over the big tourist restaurant) on July 1 at 7:30 PM; cover is $10.

And because there’s always an element of surprise when she plays live, she’s worth seeing more than once: this blog managed to catch a grand total of three of her shows over the past year at the Rockwood. One was a solo gig; two were with melodic bassist Richard Hammond, who managed to do double duty as rhythmic center and lead player, no easy feat. And the songs ran the gamut. One of the most charming numbers was Oscar & Bud, a vivid, minutely detailed portrait of a retired ex-showbiz couple who happen to be the narrator’s key people (i.e. they’ve got her spare keys – it’s a New York thing). That song looked back to vintatge Tin Pan Alley.

But Hey likes to mix it up. Drive, with its soaring chorus, 9/11 reference and get-me-the-hell-out-of-here theme, looked back to new wave, as did Miserably Happy (title track to her cult classic powerpop album), which evoked Blondie’s Dreaming. The rambunctiously pulsing, doo-wop tinged Alphabet City, a shout-out to familiar LES haunts which have lately been disappearing one after the other, took on a bittersweet quality. Likewise, We Lean on Cars, a snapshot of middle-school North Bronx anomie circa the early 90s. Hey and Hammond also ran through some more wrly entertaning snapshots of city life: David #3, weighing whether or not to succumb to the allure of a Mr. Wrong, who happens to be a Red Sox fan; Mexico Money, a droll tale of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat; and You Wear Me Out, a clever number about how macho guys sometimes turn out to be the most insecure ones. The C-Note may be long gone, Lakeside Lounge too, and Cafe Pick-Me-Up is moving to East 7th Street, but Tamara Hey still represents for the neighborhood.

And when she’s not playing gigs, she’s busy running Alphabet City Music, who offer economical and informative courses in guitar and applied music theory for players of all levels. This blog covered her introductory music theory course last year and found it both immensely challenging and also immensely useful. By the way, just in case anyone might assume ulterior motives, i.e. sucking up to the prof, to explain why this blog has been at so many of her recent shows, let’s set that record straight. The course was offered during the summer; two of those shows were in the fall and one was this past January.

Jon Batiste Brings the Party to Harlem This Weekend

Jon Batiste makes a whirlwind stop in town tonight, May 1 and tomorrow night, May 2 uptown at Minton’s for a couple of rare solo shows. It’s hard to be cynical about this guy – to call him exuberant is an understatement. The jazz and soul crooner/shouter/pianist/bandleader is New Orleans to the core, and he can really bring the party. He’s the rare artist who draws on hip-hop as much as second-line marches, southern soul, gospel, funk and jazz with some unexpectedly austere classical touches and makes all of it work, in the process creating an original sound that’s hard to resist. Rousing singalong choruses, mighty vamps that make long launching pads for high-voltage solos and lots of audience participation are part and parcel of his live show. He’s just as likely to bust out his melodica and mingle with the crowd as he is to make the piano echo and roar. Which makes sense – he’s got a theatrical side and a charisma that’s scored roles in the tv series Treme as well as in Spike Lee’s Red Hook Summer. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; you can score a seat at the bar for $25, where the sound is just as good as it is at the considerably more expensive tables. That’s how to do this vibewise: what Batiste plays is music for hanging and good times. This isn’t a room where the crowd is going to be silent and rapt this weekend.

His most recent album, Social Music, came out in 2013 and is streaming at Spotify. It’s a showcase for pretty much everything Batiste does. The opening number, D Flat Movement, has a neoromantic gravitas that contrasts with its silly title. The big concert favorite is Let God Lead, propelled by Ibanda Ruhumbika’s tersely funky tuba. The best number is the brooding, crescendoing, bolero-tinged anthem, San Spirito. There’s also reinvented Scott Joplin ragtime; oldtime blues (St. James Infirmary); a pensive wee-hours Manhattan street scene by alto saxophonist Eddie Barbash; and the ecstatic crowd-pleasers that have made the guy a hit on the jamband circuit as well as within the jazz community. Party uptown tonight, people.

The Minetta Lane Theatre Stages a Sinister, Politically Spot-On New Rock Musical

“If we act like we know what we’re doing, people will think we know what we’re doing,” Marrick Smith’s tirelessly ambitious yuppie character announces at a particularly pivotal juncture in Ivar Pall Jonsson‘s surrealistically sinister, fearlessly relevant new rock musical, Revolution in the Elbow of Ragnar Agnarsson, Furniture Painter, currently playing at the Minetta Lane Theatre. Inspired by the Enron-like run on the Icelandic krona by currency speculators in the wake of the 2008 global financial collapse, the musical is a cruelly telling parable of how the ruling classes and those elected to represent them manipulate the rest of us – and convince us that their failures are somehow ours instead. As both political and musical satire, it’s surprisingly subtle, considering how much dramatic fireworks take place and how over-the-top the parody gets in places. With roots in hippie agitprop, glam rock and George Orwell, it’s well worth the price of admission and with better branding would have a very high upside on Broadway.

The story is simple. Elbowville is a sleepy town full of people situated deep in the titular laborer’s body, south of Mombreast and north of Knee York City and its trendy suburb, Hipburg. As befits satire, the characters are all pretty broad. Cady Huffman’s Manuela, the mayor, starts out egocentrically brassy and gets increasingly diabolical as the plot unwinds. Smith’s Peter, inventor of the Prosperity Machine that brings the town great joy and hilariously spoofy bodily “enhancements,” is insatiable in his quest for more and more until the whole scheme seems on the brink of collapse (a crisis that resolves itself via flashback early on). Jesse Wildman methodically emboldens the persona of Brynja, the ingenue who can’t decide between bossy Peter and his shy, good-hearted brother (Graydon Long). Brad Nacht is exasperatingly unwavering and amusing as doofy third-wheel brother Stein, who will avoid a decision at all costs just to get along. Kate Shindle lends an acerbic fire to his status-grubbing but increasingly suspicious wife Asrun, while Patrick Boll is wickedly perfect as Manuela’s sneaky, kiss-ass straight man, Kolbein (which sounds suspiciously like “Cobain” throughout the performance).

The satire goes beyond politics to Broadway spectacle itself. A good portion of the action unfolds during song sequences, and not a single character bothers to imbue his or her vocals with anything other than a rote, smiley-faced, Disney-approved cheer (which seems to be a directorial decision, a very effective one). The music, also by Jonsson, is catchy and tuneful, drawing heavily on Aladdin Sane-era David Bowie as well as the more anthemic side of 80s new wave pop, with a bit of metal crunch or goth horror in the tenser moments. The band – Matt Basile on bass, Bryn Roberts on keyboards, John Kengla and Rob Ritchie on guitars plus a terse, swinging drummer who somehow managed not to let an injured leg in a thigh-high boot stop him – play with dynamics and intensity.

Interestingly, the narrative positions the local powers that be as the villains, without taking into account external factors conspiring against them – there are a couple of very amusing repo man/woman scenes, but that’s about it. As the bank or its facsimile gets run on, pandemonium ensues and it looks like somebody’s going to get strung up. The sudden ending packs an unexpected wallop. This show succeeds on all levels: as comedy, as corrosively cynical political commentary, as a rock show. And there’s a soundtrack album – sung by the actors and band in the original Icelandic production – that you can listen back to.

Back to that title: it’s got to go for this to succeed on any sizeable level in the US.  A show this accessible yet this impactful could have a real future on Broadway (that Fela managed to last as long as it did is good reason to believe the time is ripe for a similarly edgy 99-percenters’ tale). But xenophobic American tourist audiences won’t buy Ragnar whateverhisnameis. Elbowville would work just fine.