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Tag: Richie Barshay

Powerful Singers and an Iconic Band Celebrate Global Yiddish Music in Central Park

What’s the likelihood of seeing the Klezmatics not only slink, and barrel, and slowly sway through a gorgeous and often haunting blend of minor keys and punk-klezmer romps…but also  getting to see them back two of New York’s most powerful singers? It happened Wednesday night at Central Park Summerstage, where cantors Chaim David Berson and Yanky Lemmer got to take tantalizingly short turns on the mic in front of the band, along with other entertainment on a night celebrating Yiddish music from around the world.

There was a time when being a cantor was just as competitive as, say, African-American gospel music, or a jazz cutting contest. The cantor was the treasure of the temple, the guy you’d send on tour to represent you and thrill the people with his powerful pipes. That tradition has sadly fallen into disrepair in recent years, but it is alive and well on the Upper West Side, at the Jewish Center on 86th St. and also the Lincoln Square Synagogue, where Berson and Lemmer, respectively, hold court.

Berson has a vibrato wide enough to drive a truck through, with Little Jimmy Scott nuance but also Johnny Cash intensity, if you buy those references. He also turned out to be a fluent guitarist as well, adding poignant, purposeful jangle to one of the set’s early numbers. Lemmer’s baritone has a tinge of grit and a similarly steely resonance, opera without the buffo.

He immediately made an impact, sending a shout-out to the 99-percenters in the crowd (which seemed to be pretty much everybody) with a stern march through We’ve Got to Make a Living, an anthem for solidarity in hard times. Then he led the band through an increasingly dynamic, lickety-split, sardonically funny medley of drinking songs. “Drinking songs?” Lemmer deadpanned, “Jews don’t drink. We’re too busy suffering.”

But a little l’chaim never hurt anybody – they did that one, too toward the end of the evening. Berson opened his own set with an impassioned, broodingly rapturous, melismatic improvisation while the band built an ominous wash of sustain behind him. From there, he worked the corners for every bit of chromatic mystery in a mix of numbers that looked forward to messianic redemption and sought worldly solace, either through transcendence or libations.

The Klezmatics finally got a set of their own and reveled in it with the energy of a group, well, thirty years younger. The original rebels of the 80s klezmer revival, they celebrated all things treyf, sexually and foodwise and otherwise in the high-voltage, Romanian-tinged dance numbers, and kept an eye on history with the slower ones. There’s no small irony in that the high point of the evening might have been the slow, subdued dirge The Yoke, a Yiddish translation of a Catalan protest song from the 1960s.

Frontman Lorin Sklamberg played that one on piano rather than his usual accordion, like he did much of the rest of the material, and showed off similar chops: at one point, he hit an unexpectedly feral barrelhouse groove. Likewise, trumpeter Frank London spent much of the night behind an electric piano, constantly tweaking it to get the textures right when he wasn’t hitting ecstatic heights or firing off hundred-yard spirals on his horn. Bassist Paul Morrissett took a turn on tsimbl, the Ukrainian Jewish ancestor of the cimbalom, while violinist Deborah Strauss switched between icepick precision and stark, rustic, otherworldly sustain over Richie Barshay’s playful, jazz-inflected drums. When he wasn’t reaching the rafters on alto sax, Matt Darriau was adding ethereal flute textures or channeling grim Balkan tonalities on clarinet. 

As an encore, Daniel Kahn – star of the upcoming immigration-themed musical Amerike – came up to deliver a Yiddish version of Leonard Cohen song whose expiration date passed a long time, joined by the rest of the night’s performers, among them tongue-in-cheek a-cappella unit the Maccabeats. But then everybody segued into a rapidfire dance number every bit as fun as Man in a Hat, the title track from the Klezmatics’ cult classic 1995 Jews with Horns album, a wry salute to their home turf: “I’m a man in a hat, a Manhattan man,” Sklamberg reaffirmed.

The next Central Park Summerstage event of note starts at 5 PM on June 24, a night of Portuguese music with newschool fado star Sofia Ribeiro and assaultive goth/Stooges punk duo Dead Combo with special guest guitarslinger Marc Ribot. Get there early if you’re going. 

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The Klezmatics Build Their Legacy With Yet Another Explosive, Eclectic Album

This new record has a song about slavery. another about the joys of being out and gay in an oppressive society, one about the murder of an innocent immigrant, along with a pretty wild drinking song, a bunch of dance numbers and a handful of dirges. Pretty relevant stuff, right? Is this hip-hop? Blues? New wave? None of the above. It’s the new Klezmatics album, Apikorsom/Heretics, streaming at Spotify. And it’s one of the best releases of 2016.

The Klezmatics are the Clash of klezmer. Back in the 80s, the Clash were the one punk band that pretty much everybody knew and loved, and the Klezmatics were their Jewish folk-punk counterparts – although their musicianship was always a cut above even the most talented punk rock band. There have been plenty of other innovators in traditional Jewish music from around the world, but most  – Dave Tarras, Manny Blanc and Prince Nazaroff, noteworthy among them – edged toward jazz. The Klezmatics, on the other hand, brought the transgressive energy of punk to a vast legacy of global Jewish sounds, and vice versa. The new album only further cements their reputation as innovators and instigators, a band whose influence long ago reached far beyond the klezmer demimonde. It’s safe to say that without the Klezmatics, there probably would be no Gogol Bordello and probably no World Inferno either.

The album opens on a trad note with Lisa Gutkin’s instrumental Der Geler Fink, her rapidfire violin against a suspensefully vamping pulse, then trumpeter Frank London and frontman/accordionist Lorin Sklamberg lead the band off on a scampering tangent. London flips the script and clarinetist Matt Darriau follows suit, wary and soulful, before the band brings the lightning back.

Zol Shoy Komen di Guele is a swaying, elegant take on a midtempo oompah groove, a song of redemption and salvation. The band moves to elegantly waltzing, brooding Ladino territory with the bitterly metaphorical Der Yokh (The Yoke) originally recorded by Lluis Llach in 1968: “Although it’s rotten and rusty, it grips us like pliers,” Sklamberg intones in the original Catalan.

The traditional Party in Odessa follows a bounce that’s just short of frantic: It’s a funny song, a peasant gone wild in the big city: “The guy with no suspenders is the one who loses his pants,” more or less. The band ramps it up doublespeed at the end.

Dark Is the Night, a new original with music by London features stark violin against mournful washes of accordion punctuated by spare cimbalom. If John Lennon had grown up in a shtetl somewhere in Eastern Europe, he might have written something like this.The title track is another London original; Sklamberg delivering a homoerotic Yiddish lyric over a happy bouncing melody that’s part early Beatles, part joyous shtetl stomp, taking an abrupt, welcome detour into a minor-key romp livened by the trumpeter’s terse, muted attack. Darriau’s Three-Ring Sirba is next, a bittersweet waltz fueled by the composer’s enigmatically sailing clarinet.

The bolero-tinged Vi Lang, London’s adaptation of David Edelstadt’s poem Vakht Oyf! sets Sklamberg’s understatedly imploring vocals against an elegantly slinky backdrop lowlit by funereal organ and latin-flavored horns, up to an uneasily shadowy, psychedelic outro underpinned by London’s insistent piano and Richie Barshay’s tumbling drums. Likewise, Sklamberg’s arrangement of Chava Alberstein’s Ver Firt Di Ale Shifn? (Who Guides the Ships?) has a moody late Beatlesque resonance and a boomy Barshay bolero beat. Then the band picks it up with the lickety-split Shushan Purim, contemplating the hangover of all hangovers. In case you’re wondering how to say “blotto” in Yiddish, the word is “farshnoshket.”

Green Violin, a London instrumental, has a dramatic ba-BUMP bounce and delicious Middle Eastern chromatics. Der Mames Spigl (Mama’s Mirror), a minimalist dirge by Gutkin with lyrics by Masha Shtuker-Paiuk, grimly contemplates the ravages of age. Even grimmer is the swaying, ominously Turkish-flavored murder ballad Tayer Yankele (Poor Yankele), Paul Morrisett’s guitar steady as the whole band builds a haunted call-and-response. It’s the album’s most epic and arguably best number.

The band handles the traditional, chromatically fueled dance Shtetl MO with a bouncy restraint that explodes on the chorus and then builds to a lickety-split romp as the horns blaze. The album winds up with Mazltov, a tender folk-rock waltz. Over the decades, the Klezmatics have put out some great albums and this one is probably in the top three along with their 2011 Live at the Town Hall album and their iconic 1997 collection, Possessed. The band are currently on US tour; their next show is at the Freight & Salvage, 2020 Addison St. in Berkeley, CA on Dec 21 at 8 PM. Advance tix are $28.

Wild, Crazy, Deep Danceable Sounds at Last Night’s Borscht Ball in Bushwick

The dancing crowd at last night’s second annual Borscht Ball at Paperbox in Bushwick got to watch singer Svetlana Shmulyian – who has a gig with her bittersweetly torchy, cosmopolitan swing jazz band the Delancey Five coming up at Lucille’s on June 24 at 8 – sing coyly quirky old Soviet pop songs from the 60s in her native tongue, with a knowing happy-hour gleam in her eye.

They got to hear klezmer firebrand Daniel Kahn – who’s got a gig tonight at Joe’s Pub at 9:30 – unveil an obscure old Russian tune he’d never played before, which he’d just translated on the way down from Utica with fellow singer Psoy Korolenko. The gist of it was, “If the devil won’t take me, how about your bed.” Kahn had matched his English rhyme scheme to the original, quite a feat.

They got to pogo and linedance and twirl around the room as the Klezmatics aired out a fiery, characteristically ambitious series of new songs from their long-awaited forthcoming album. They got to see a parade of some of the world’s most sought-after talent in Jewish roots music – irrepressible Litvakus clarinetist/singer Dmitri Zisl Slepvovitch and charismatic Golem bandleader Annette Ezekiel Kogan among them – beat a path on and off the stage as the music shifted from defiantly joyous, to wounded angst, to full-throttle klezmer punk.

The festival’s raison d’etre is to provide a snapshot of the many different flavors of klezmer punk from around the world. If you think that’s a little esoteric, consider that there are hundreds of bands who would have fit this bill. If the Klezmatics weren’t the first, they opened the floodgates and have since inspired more than a generation of musicians. Playing their thirtieth anniversary show, they drew on sounds as disparate as Romanian, Turkish, Ukrainian and Catalan folk traditions while adding their signature firepower and jazz sophistication. Trumpeter Frank London played his usual, alternately crystalline and ferociously elephantine trumpet with his right hand while doing catchy arpeggios and comping chords on organ with his left. Matt Darriau ripped through careening postbop jazz on tenor sax and spun off spirals on clarinet over the stampeding, sometimes vaudevillian pulse of drummer Richie Barshay and bassist Paul Morrissett while frontman/accordionist Lorin Sklamberg sang in Yiddish, Russian and English. At the end of their sizzling opening set, he told the crowd that they’d be back, and by the end they pretty much all were, joining the members of Opa in careening versions of well-loved classics like Limonchiki and Bei Mir Bist Du Shein.

Brooklyn supergroup Svetlana and the Eastern Blokhedz – Shmulyian backed by bandleader Wade Ripka on guitar, his Greek Judas bandmates Quince Marcum on horn and vocals and Nick Cudahy on bass, Isaak Mills on guitar, sax and glockenspiel, Choban Elektrik‘s Jordan Shapiro and Las Rubias Del Norte‘s Allyssa Lamb on keys, and Slavic Soul Party‘s Chris Stromquist on drums – kept the dancers on their feet, opening and eventually closing with psychedelic garage pop that sounded straight out of France, 1969. Who says the Russians ever outgrew their French fixation, anyway? From there Shmulyian led them nimbly and warmly through a Russian pop counterpart to Dancin’ in the Rain, to nostalgic salutes to motherhood and romance and eventually a Soviet equivalent of “Celebrate good times, c’mon!” True to form, their deadpan version of the Ventures’ Cold War instrumental classic Spudnik was irresistibly funny in context.

Making their U.S. debut, eclectic Russian band  Opa headlined and offered an unstoppably kinetic take on many of the directions klezmer continues to expand into. With tenor saxophone, trumpet, trombone, guitar, bass and drums going full force, they opened with a catchy old Russian riff that they built into straight-ahead oldschool disco. From there the band romped back and forth through time, vocally and instrumentally, flavored with acidic no wave guitar, Talking Heads funk and maybe a little Gang of Four. As the special guests made their way to the stage until there wasn’t much room left up there, the group took a detour into the tropics with some rocksteady, a couple of snaky klezmer cumbia mashups, a bit of Balkan reggae, hints of salsa and then a rousing return to the classics at the end of four nonstop hours of music. By then most of the oldsters – an impressive number, considering how deep in the ‘Shweck the venue is – had gone home, leaving the floor to the kids, many of them couples, who’d spent pretty much the entire time on their feet. By then it was as if the music itself had taken on a personality of its own, overjoyed to be brought back from death’s door in the nick of time.

Sandaraa Build a Magical Bridge with Pakistani and Jewish Sounds

You want esoteric…and way fun? How about a mashup of Pakistani and klezmer sounds? Meet south Asian/Jewish jamband Sandaraa (Pashto for “song”). While they have some rock instrumentation, they’re not a rock band. They sound more Middle Eastern than anything else, which makes sense since Jewish music has roots there, and those exotic modes filtered east centuries, even millennia ago. The brainchild of star Pakistani chanteuse Zebunnisa Bangash and klezmer clarinet powerhouse Michael Winograd, the band also includes Dolunay violinist Eylem Basaldi, Klezmatics/Herbie Hancock drummer Richie Barshay, bassist David Lizmi (of bewitchingly noir cinematic band Karla Rose & the Thorns and Moroccan trance group Innov Gnawa), supersonic accordionist Patrick Farrell, and Israeli surf/metal/jazz guitarist Yoshie Fruchter. Their debut album is streaming at Storyamp, and they’ve got an album release show on May 11 at 7 PM at the big room at the Rockwood; cover is $12. After that, they’re at Barbes on May 16 at 7 PM where they debut their new Urdu poetry-inspired project The Pomegranate of Sistan, addressing “religious orthodoxy and nationalism across cultural divides.”

.While a lot of westerners may associate Pakistan with ghazals and qawwali, Sandaraa incorporate more rustic styles from remote regions of the country. The album’s opening track, Jegi Jegi Lailajan opens with an edgy Middle Eastern freygish riff and then slinks along on an undulating, syncopated groove, Bangash’s suspensefully enticing, air-conditioned delivery rising to warmer heights and then back to more pensive terrain. Who knew Barshay could play clip-clop south Asian percussion, or how effortlessly Fruchter would gravitate to the spiky phrasing of Pakistani rubab music?

Surrealistically blippy Their Majesties Satanic Request organ underscores Bangash’s expressive delivery as the band opens Mana Nele, then they ride Farrell’s pulsing, Qawwali-esque accordion waves, Basaldi and Winograd delivering achingly melancholy, Middle Eastern modal riffage in tandem.

Winograd opens Bibi Sanem Janem with a brief, starkly cantorially-inspired clarinet taqsim, then Fruchter pushes it along with his moody oud until Barshay’s tumbling qawwali groove and Farrell’s steady pulse take over. Winograd takes it out with a long, vividly austere, low-register solo.

A tenderly catchy, shapeshifting lullaby, Dilbarake Nazinim opens with an expansively rustic, pensive solo from Fruchter. The album winds up with the slinky, upbeat Haatera Tayiga, a jaunty mashup that best capsulizes the joyous stylistic brew this band manages to conjure: it’s amazing how much they manage to pack into a single song. As musical hybrids go, there hasn’t been an album this fun or full of surprises released this year.

Allegra Levy Invents Her Own Classic Vocal Jazz Songcraft

Singer and jazz composer Allegra Levy is a big-picture person. Her debut album Lonely City – streaming at Spotify – is less about the absence of affection and those who might provide it than it is about fullscale alienation. On a philosophical level, this New York jazz stylist captures the soul-crushing reality of a city where jazz artists under 40 are a rarity. On one level, there’s no lack of an indigenous talent base, as there should be in a city of ostensibly eight million. On the other, even native-born artists like Levy have never faced such a rigorous challenge simply paying the bills. Maybe that’s why she jumped at the chance to do a longterm Hong Kong gig last year. Singing in a cool, protean, enigmatic alto with a talented band behind her, she’s playing Cornelia Street Cafe on August 18 at 8:30 PM; cover is $10 plus a $10 minimum.

What sets Levy apart from the hundreds of women scatting around with microphones is that she writes her own songs: every number on the album is an original, no small achievement. The opening track is a sophisticated, swinging take on a cabaret sound that goes back to the 30s. “Anxiety, stay the hell away from me!” Levy warns, guitarist Steve Cardenas taking a ratber furtive solo that tenor saxophonist Adam Kolker picks up more lightheartedly. The snide I Don’t Want to Be in Love has mambo tinges and a scampering groove fueled by drummer Richie Barshay, trumpeter John Bailey and pianist Carmen Staaf: “Someone wake me from this nightmare!” Levy insists.

She opens the early 70s-style soul-jazz ballad Everything Green with some balmy vocalese, a trick intro as it turns out: as Mark Feldman’s violin dances overhead, Levy musing about carving out a safe space amidst the stress. “I don’t want to die alone,” is the mantra on the outro.

A New Face works a familiar, vampy postbop latin swing, Levy dipping into the lows with some clever wordplay: “Antiquity is where I long to be, take me back to our ancient history,” she smiles. She goes in the other direction on the languid Why Do I: “Why do I stumble when you say something humble, or you fidget or you mumble,”Levy ponders, and follows the tangent down from there.

“Time has treated me a bit too coldly,” Levy admits in A Better Day, a study in how a band can resist the temptation to just cut loose and swing the hell out of a song: it’s fun to hear how it inches that way, little by little, Levy adding some jaunty, clear-voiced scatting. The album’s tour de force is the melismatic, noir-tinged ballad I’m Not Okay: Levy’s damaged existentialist heroine looks straight back to Blossom Dearie, vibewise if not stylistically.

Clear-Eyed Tango (as opposed to the blurry-eyed kind, one supposes) is closer to circus rock, or, say, the sardonic Coney Island phantasmagoria of Carol Lipnik, Feldman adding an aptly menacing solo. The album’s title track blends clave jazz with some unexpected Asian flavor, “Drowning in the crowd of the hungry and the persevering…what is this goal that we’re all trying to battle for?” Levy wants to know. Our Lullaby is a head-scratcher – what guy wants to rest his head on a girl’s knee? The final cut is The Duet, a gorgeous chamber jazz ballad fueled by bassist Jorge Roeder’s ambered bowing. On one level, Levy is as retro as they get. On another, the world is overdue for how much fresh air she’s breathing into a time-tested idiom. Those who like the classics won’t find her hopelessly lost in the hashtag generation; likewise, those from this generation who might think what she does is dated are in for a serious wake-up call.

One of the Year’s Best Twinbills: Sandaraa and Raya Brass Band at Littlefield

This year good things come in twos. Granted, in a city with a population considerably beyond the official figure of eight million, it shouldn’t be hard to put a couple of good bands back to back, but the show back on May 23 at Littlefield was amazing even by this blog’s lofty standards. Sandaraa opened. They might be the most improbable and also the most original supergroup in town. Frontwoman Zebunnisa Bangash – a star in her native Pakistan – jumpstarted the band when she invited Michael Winograd – a klezmer luminary and one of the world’s most exhilarating clarinetists – to collaborate. The rest is history. They didn’t have to look far to fill out the rest of the lineup. This one included violinist Eylem Basaldi, accordionist Patrick Farrell, Yoshie Fruchter doubling on guitar and oud and longtime Klezmatic Richie Barshay on drums. And their sound – a mind-bending, sometimes hypnotic, sometimes propulsive mashup of Pakistani, Balkan and klezmer melodies – was like nothing else that’s been staged anywhere in town this year.

The band typically took their time launching into a groove, with pensive intros from Fruchter (on the oud – a rare treat), Basaldi and Winograd, the latter nonchalantly spiraling down in a shower of chromatic sparks. Farrell did much the same later in the set. Bangash varied her dynamics depending on the song, sometimes with a wounded resonance that brought to mind Eva Salina, other times with a meticulously modulated, melismatic approach. Polyrhythms and counterrythms were everywhere. One number had a tender lullaby quality; another teased the undulating crowd with the hint of a galloping qawwali rhythm, but never went there quite all the way. And although not everything was in minor keys, most of the songs had an apprehensive undercurrent, notably one number that the band spun along like an Irish reel before Basaldi led them into more moody territory with a stark violin solo. They closed with what sounded like a recent Punjabi hit, but with purist, acoustic production values.

Raya Brass Band headlined. For the last few years, they’ve been one of the most explosive party bands in town, sort of a punk Balkan brass jamband. Their metamorphosis into a sensationally tight, even elegant dancefloor group was stunning to witness. Almost imperceptibly, they followed a steady upward trajectory and took the crowd along with them, gathered on the floor around them, as the music led to a fiery peak with an Ethiopian-tinged groove. Don Godwin, the slinkiest tuba player in town, got to launch that one with a bristling minor-key riff – who would have guessed? And it worked like a charm.

This time out, the bandleaders took their time and put a lot of space between their solos, rather than duking it out in a bloody-knuckles match like they used to do. But it’s not like the band has tamed their sound – they’ve just introduced another level of dynamics and suspense. Nezih Antakli’s machinegunning standup drum riffs had the drive of a runaway train, but a steady one; accordionist Matthew “Max” Fass waited til the end before firing off one of the most adrenalizing, rapidfire solos of the night: getting to watch his fast fingers and also Farrell’s on the same stage on the same night was very cool.

As the set went on, the rhythms grew from a cumbia and reggae-tinged bounce to trickier Serbian and Macedonian-style metrics. After playing the voice of reason to the sax’s close-to-the-edge wail for most of the night, Syversen finally set off some fireworks of his own, going off on a searing, microtone-spiced tangent that left the crowd at a loss for words. And as much as the solos, and the chops, and the grooves is what draws the crowds, what might be most impressive is that most of Raya Brass Band’s songs are originals. It’s impossible to distinguish their own songs from the Balkan sounds that have influenced them so deeply. Somebody put these guys on a plane to Guca, Serbia for the trumpet festival next year and watch them give the locals a run for their money.

The Glass House Project Reinvent Haunting, Exhilarating Jewish Themes

Friday night at Drom the Glass House Project played alternately sizzling and haunting new arrangements based more or less on old klezmer and Hungarian folk themes. The Hungarian-American collaboration take heir name from the best-known of the over seventy secret refuges for Jews that underground resistance hero Carl Lutz set up throughout Budapest during the Holocaust. Perhaps reflecting the triumph of that defiant achievement, the music was exhilarating, bristling with eerie chromatics and fiery solos from throughout the band. Trumpeter Frank London led the group through split-second shifts from suspensefully atmospheric, to frantic, to joyously triumphant. There was an uneasy, carnivalesque undercurrent to much of the music, as well as an explosive circus-rock drive peaked by wild crescendos from violinist Jake Shulman-Ment, guitarist Aram Bajakian, violinist/singer Szirtes Edina Mokus, multi-reedman Bela Agoston and cimbalom player Miklos Lukacs.

Drummer Richie Barshay supplied grooves ranging from mistily atmospheric, to slow and slinky, to crazed and vaudevillian while bassist Pablo Aslan anchored the songs with dark, fat, pulsing lines, often playing with a bow to max out the dark, sustained intensity. They played the show as a suite, more or less, launching into one theme after another: it was hard to tell just where one tune began and the other ended. Ethereal strings gave way to trumpet-fueled romps, Bajakian adding the occasional wryly skronky passage, eerily surfy solo or majestically spacious, bell-like accents on a twelve-string which still had a pricetag attached to the neck.

The high point of the early part of the show was a shapeshifting number that began with stop-and-start horn bursts, then a a misterioso noir theme with Bajakian’s guitar paired off against menacingly starlit cimbalom. Then it morphed into a march that Barshay took further outside, rhythmically, into a bit of a free jazz-inspired free-for-all and then back to the slinky menace – and then a lickety-split outro. The last song worked a similarly biting, chromatically-fueled theme over a beat that started out funky and then went into a madcap vaudevillian sprint. On one of the earlier tunes, Agoston played bagpipe, eventually holding a note for what seemed minutes as hs slowly squeezed all the air out of it. “Even some people in Hungary don’t know we have these,” said singer Kata Harsaczki, who contributed vocals on that song as well as on a rustic diptych that began slowly and then went lickety-split a little later. For anyone kicking themselves because they decided to not to brave the elements to see this show, the band will be at the Museum of Jewish Heritage at 36 Battery Place (north and west of Battery Park; Battery Place runs parallel to Broadway) tonight, May 27 at 7:15 PM; admission is free, but you need to rsvp here. They’ll also be at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC yomorrow night, May 28 at 6.

Troubled Transcendence: Daniel Kahn & the Painted Bird at Lincoln Center

When you think about it, noir cabaret music is basically klezmer. Which is no surprise when you consider that so many of the songwriters in Weimar Germany and further east were Jewish. Berlin-based songwriter Daniel Kahn takes that tradition and updates it, with one eye on the past and the other on a very uncertain future. Kahn’s music transcends any label, Jewish or otherwise: it is cosmopolitan in every sense of the word. His dissidents always have their bags packed and ready go to. They expect to be surveilled, whether by the narc next door with his ear on a glass pressed to the wall, or by a spycam. His songs celebrate defiance and rebellion, with the hope for a better future that anchors all true revolutions. Loaded with puns, multiple levels of meaning and an often crushing irony, one of their most persistent themes is that if we forget the past, we’re doomed to repeat it in all its colossal ugliness. Sunday at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, Kahn and a pickup band consisting of Avi Fox-Rosen on Telecaster, Benjy Fox-Rosen on bass, the Klezmatics’ Richie Barshay on drums and Michael Winograd on clarinet ran through a riveting mix of songs that drew on traditions dating back decades if not centuries, yet which are completely in the here-and-now.

Kahn opened the show with an ominous wash of minor chords from his accordion, slowly launching into the song in Yiddish before switching to English for the chorus. Over a steady, pensive sway, Kahn told the tale of a Depression-era Robin Hood, the King of the Thieves who in the end is “sick from the streets, from the prison walls, but on his gravestone, etched in gold, he should have his story told.” They followed that with The Good Old Bad Old Days, a richly lyrical look at ostalgie, the ambiguous sentimentality for the utter predictability of the Berlin Wall era held by some Germans of a certain age. As he did with many of the songs, Winograd lit it up with a biting, aching clarinet solo, Kahn recounting how now the vendors along the “border that cuts through the town like a surgical scar” are Turkish, the watches they sell actually work, and that there’s now a market where a musician can “keep the esthetic ‘cliches,’ in this market of fleas, selling klezmer cd’s for the good old bad old days.”

“Prepare for your inner emigration,” Kahn warned on a briskly shuffling number that chronicled a couple of girls who decided not to leave after all: a Berlin cabaret dancer who won’t give up her old haunts, then a kibbutznik who falls in love with a Palestinian and tries to win over his family, with dismal results. So, “They thought about leaving to visit her cousin David in Michigan…but David wanted to marry his boyfriend, so they were moving to Berlin,” Kahn deadpanned. Emigration is a state of mind, after all: it may make you absolutely paranoid, but as he hinted, that might be a small price to pay. After that, Kahn put down his accordion for a ukulele and ran through a misty, nocturnally Americana-flavored Woody Guthrie homage, picturing the songwriter away from his Mermaid Avenue home, entertaining the troops while his wife waits anxiously for his return.

The most haunting song of the afternoon was Sunday After the War. Kahn recounted how he’d started writing it after the Iraq war had begum, and that it was unfortunate that he didn’t finish it after the war – and that it’s a song that he needs to keep singing. A slow, harrowing dirge, Kahn offered to “pay for your sorrow if you pay for mine,” ending with the sobering reality that “they’re always recruiting after the war.” From there the band took an unexpected and very successful detour into reggae and then pensive, Pink Floyd-tinged art-rock with a couple of reflections on Zionist and Palestinian nationalist points of view, watching idealistic settlers “coming to Judea with a shovel and a gun.” They closed with a bouncy, snarling klezmer-punk anthem “”written for Occupy Wall Street in Poland sometime in the 1920s.” A sarcastic call to “join the jobless corps…let the yuppies have their wine, bread and water suits us fine,” it was an apt way to close the show. Over the past few years, the Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival has had some absolutely brilliant shows, from Dave Brubeck to Laurie Anderson last year: this one ranks with the most memorable of them.