Having seen just one of the year’s best segues between two bands – in a year that’s been loaded with amazing twinbills – was there any sense in sticking around for the last band? Absolutely. Having already made the shlep out to Trans-Pecos in Ridgewood this past evening for Ember Schrag‘s potently lyrical psychedelia and Alec K. Redfearn‘s macabre, accordion-fueled psychedelic art-rock, hanging around for a rare appearance by Escape by Ostrich was worth it. The four-piece band – Willie Klein on guitar and violin, Bob Bannister on lead guitar, Chris Nelson on bass and Robert Dennis on drums – were like a no wave-tinged mashup of early Love Camp 7 (before they rediscovered the Beatles) and the Grateful Dead. They wound up a long but rewarding night with a particularly relevant, smoldeingly low-key cover of Woody Guthrie’s Deportees. Getting to that point was every bit as much fun.
Redfearn. who’s on tour at the moment, sounds like no other artist anywhere, the rare bandleader who’s iconic in psychedelic, art-rock and gothic rock circles. He also had the presence of mind – pure genius, actually – to enlist Schrag not as a guitarist but as a keyboardist. Redfearn gets his signature sound by running his accordion through a pedalboard: one minute he’s roaring like a guitar, the next he’s oscillating or adding devious wah-wah textures like Josh Camp did with his Electrovox in Chicha Libre for so long. Playing organ, Schrag harmonized seamlessly with Redfearn when she wasn’t adding hypnotic low drones or elegant baroque-flavored lines: you’d think that the band’s brilliant previous keyboardist, Orion Rigel Domisse, would have been irreplaceable, but Schrag adds her own similarly psychedelic edge. Redfearn sang in his signature powerful, brooding baritone while bassist Christopher Sadlers anchored the songs with his steady, pitchblende bowing, alternating with the occasional slinky rattlesnake groove. Drummer Matt McLaren enhanced the songs’ Balkan flavor with his sharpshooter rimshots on a kit with no cymbals. Horn player Ann Schattle supplied terse, incisive riffage when she wasn’t adding atmospherics, much like Schrag.
Auspiciously, much of the set was new material, most of the songs segueing into each other to make up a macabre suite. They opened with a thumping new number, murderous Serbian folk as done by Syd Barrett, maybe, then without stopping made their way into a swinging Balkan stripper vamp that sounded like it might be Redfearn’s classic Fire Shuffle, from his most recent album, Sister Death. As it disintegrated, radiating evil sonic radionuclides, it turned out not to be. A menacingly marionettish tune put Schattle’s horn front and center as Redfearn ran his accordion through the sonic strobe of a 1960s repeater box. The trickiest number was a Macedonian-inflected tune from Redfearn’s Exterminating Angel album from a few years ago; the darkest and catchiest material later in the set reflected a heavy Greek rembetiko influence. The folks at the Rock in Opposition Festival in France – where the band will be appearing next month – are in for a real treat.
Schrag and her amazing band – Bannister doing double duty on lead guitar, with Debby Schwartz on bass and harmony vocals and Gary Foster on drums – opened the night. Hearing her refer to herself as a “folkie” was pretty funny: although her first couple of albums are what she calls “great plains gothic,” her sound has evolved into shapeshifting, sometimes slithery psychedelic rock. Foster and Banister fueled the understatedly ominous flamenco flourishes on a bitter waltz early in the set, Schwartz and Schrag engaging in a brief, intense bit of trippy, contrapuntal neo-plainchant at one point. Seamlessly, they made their way through the straight-up, latin-tinged psychedelic pop of What Birds Do, the numbed Abbey Road Beatles angst of The Real Penelope and the shapeshifting Banquo’s Book, Bannister’s triplets mingling with Schrag’s hypnotically pulsing riffs. Likewise, it was impossible to figure out who was playing what throughout the deliciously clanging textures of one of Schrag’s several Shakespearean-influenced numbers, the agitatedly intense art-rock anthem Lady M.
Foster raised the suspense to murderous levels on the intro to Sutherland, an allusively creepy badlands tableau from Schrag’s most recent solo album, The Sewing Room. And although there’s all sorts of (usually implied) mayhem in Schrag’s double entendres, biblical and historical allusions, she can be riotously funny when she’s in the mood. My Brother’s Men, as she told the crowd, wasn’t actually about a goon squad: she got the inspiration from the title from the legions of barbecue joints run by brothers in her native Nebraska.