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Purist Roots Reggae Band John Brown’s Body Make a Long-Awaited Manhattan Return

John Brown’s Body have been touring for longer than Bob Marley & the Wailers were together.

Think about that for a second.

If you count the point in the mid-60s where ska slowed down to rocksteady, and Toots & the Maytals had a hit with Do the Reggay, roots reggae has been around for half a century. And it’s been a long time since reggae was CNN for Rastafarians and the Jamaican pro-democracy underground.

And it seems like almost as long since John Brown’s Body played a good New York venue. These road warriors’ most recent album, Fireflies – streaming at Soundcloud – has been sitting on the hard drive here waiting for the moment that they’d say boom bye bye to Williamsburg bowling alley Babylon. Good news: they’re playing Bowery Ballroom on Dec 1 at 10ish; cover is $20.

The album’s brassy, minor-key first track is Badman. The song was recorded before the 2016 Presidential election, and it alludes to exploitation of immigrants and working people rather than the tweeting twit in the Oval Office. Still:

Created a master fool
Pay what is natural
Won’t be your slave
Don’t want to obey

Reggae wasn’t always just about getting stoned and chilling.

Realistically, not many people other than musicians are going to listen to this album for every single lyric or nuance. But you have to hand it to this band for nailing every oldschool trope from the rocksteady era to the early 80s, right before the Sleng Teng riddim changed the game.

Tour enough and you can afford the equipment and the studio time to do this like legends. Some highlights: keyboardist JP Petronzio’s subtle organ flickers on the album’s title track, and his growly sub-bass clavinova on the aptly titled Mystery; drummer Tommy Benedetti’s straight-to-dub snare hits; the spot-on evocation of early Maytals rocksteady in Hard Man Fe Dead; trumpeter Sam Dechenne’s horn chart from High Grade, straight out of a blazing Burning Spear anthem circa 1975.

The three-part harmonies on Mash Them Down, another pro-immigrant anthem that would make the Mighty Diamonds proud. That sneaky Aswad reference in the Steel Pulse soundalike New Fashion. The dubwise production, especially with the layers of echo effects in Pure Fire. Singer Elliot Martin’s vengeful “You never look me in the eye” on the closing cut, Who Paid Them Off. Amazing how much you can do with two chords if you have the imagination, isn’t it? Is it time for all the new jacks to do a John Brown’s Body tribute album?

Saturday Night at Golden Fest: Best Concert of 2017, Hands Down

Game plan for last night’s big blowout at this year’s Golden Fest was to see as many unfamiliar bands as possible. That wasn’t difficult, considering that there were more than sixty Balkan and Balkan-influenced acts playing five different spaces in about eight hours at Brooklyn’s magnificent Grand Prospect Hall. The way things turned out, it was fun to catch a few familiar favorites among a grand total of fifteen different groups. Consider: when the swaying chandelier hanging over Raya Brass Band looks like it could crash on top of them at any second, and sax player Greg Squared has launched into one of his signature, supersonic volleys of microtones and chromatics, and singer Brenna MacCrimmon is belting at full throttle over a machinegunning beat, there’s no resisting that. You just join the line of dancers, or step back, take a hit of tequila  – or whatever your poison is, this is a party – and thank the random chance that you’re alive to see this.

If you’re hell-bent on being a counterintuitive concertgoer, you can kick off the evening not with the fiery brass music that the festival is best known for, but with something along the lines of the brooding Romany and klezmer guitar folk of charismatic singer Zhenya Lopatnik’s four-piece acoustic band, Zapekanka. Their set of Romany laments, drinking songs, and a folk tune that foreshadowed Django Reinhardt turned out to be a lot more bittersweet than the Russian cheesecake whose name they’ve appropriated.

It was good to get a chance to see Niva – kaval player Bridget Robbins, tamburists Corinna Snyder and Kristina Vaskys and tapan drummer Emily Geller – since they don’t play out as much as they used to, considering their members are busy with other projects. This was a recurrent theme throughout the festival. A straw poll of informed participants picked percussionist Jerry Kisslinger as king of the night, so to speak: he was scheduled to play with seven different groups, jams not included. He wasn’t part of this band. The quartet joined voices for about a half an hour of ethereal close harmonies over hypnotically circling rhythms, a mix of Macedonian dances and tunes from just over the Bulgarian border, even more lavishly ornamented with bristling microtones. Meanwhile, the circle of dancers in the upstairs Rainbow Room – much smaller than the venue’s magnificent ballroom – had packed the space to almost capacity.

Driven by Gyorgy Kalan’s austerely cavorting, rustically ornamented fiddle, the trio Fenyes Banda kept the dancers going with a mix of Hungarian and Transylvanian numbers. As raw and bucolic (yet at the same time very musically sophisticated) as that group was, it’s hard to think of an ensemble on the bill more evocative of a get-together in a village square in some distant century than Ta Aidhonia. The mixed choir harmonized in a somewhat subdued, stately set of Thracian dances, backed only by bagpipe and standup drum. The dancers didn’t quite to know what to make of this in the early going, but by a couple of songs in they were back out on the floor.

By half past eight, it was finally time to make a move downstairs for the mighty Kavala, who played a considerably more contemporary update on late 20th century Macedonian brass music, propelled by electric bass and drums. Trubas bubbled and blazed through fiery chromatic changes until finally, practically at the end of the set, star tenor sax player Lefteris Bournias took one of his signature, wildfire, shivery solos. Back upstairs, Ornamatik took a similarly electric sound further into the 21st century, the music’s fat low end anchored by nimble five-string bassist Ben Roston and frontwoman/trombonist Bethanni Grecynski. Their slinky, shapeshifting originals brought to mind Brooklynites Tipsy Oxcart (who were also on the bill, and deserve a shout for their incendiary, stomping set of mostly new material at Barbes Thursday night).

While the Roma Stars entertained the dancers in the big ballroom with woozy P-Funk synth in addition to the brass, ageless Armenian-American jazz sage Souren Baronian held the Rainbow Room crowd rapt. The octogenarian reedman’s most mesmerizing moment came during a long, undulating modal vamp where he took his clarinet and opened the floodgates of a somberly simmering river of low-register, uneasily warping microtones. And then suddenly lept out of it with a hilariously surreal quote – and the band behind him hit the chorus head-on without missing a beat. As far as dynamics and judiciously placed ideas and unselfconscious soul go, it would be unfair to expect other musicians to channel such a depth of feeling.

Although two of the acts afterward, Eva Salina and Peter Stan, and tar lute player Amir Vahab’s quartet, came awfully close. While his singer bandmate reached gracefully for angst and longing and also unrestrained joy, Stan was his usual virtuoso self. At one point, the accordionist was playing big chords, a rapidfire, slithery melody and a catchy bassline all at the same time. Was he using a loop pedal? No. It was all live. That’s how the duo are recording their forthcoming studio album, reason alone to look forward to it. Vahab’s wary, panoramic take on classic Persian and Turkish sufi themes, and his gracefully intense volleys of notes over twin percussion and otherworldly, rippling kanun, continued to the hold the crowd spellbound

By this time in the evening, many of the dancers had migrated to an even higher floor for the blazing, often completely unhinged and highly improvisational South Serbian sounds of the Novi Hitovi Brass Band. By contrast, Boston’s Cocek! Brass Band rose to the challenge of following Raya Brass Band’s volcanic set with a precise, wickedly intricate performance of their own all-original material, complete with their shoutalong theme song to close on a high note. Trumpeter/bandleader Sam Dechenne’s command of microtones and moody Balkan modes matched Greg Squared’s devastating displays of technique, if in a somewhat more low-key vein.

Hanging in the smaller rooms for most of the night while the biggest names on the bill – organizers Zlatne Uste and trumpeter Frank London’s klezmer ensemble on the top end – entertained a packed house in the ballroom, reached a haunting peak with  a vivid, hauntingly serpentine, all-too-brief set of Syrian exile anthems and lost-love ballads by levantine ensemble Zikrayat. Frontman/violinist Sami Abu Shumays led the group through this alternately poignant and biting material, the night’s furthest divergence from the Balkans into the Middle East, with his usual sardonic sense of humor and acerbic chops.

Finally, at almost two in the morning, it was time to head down to the main floor for the night’s pounding coda, from the night’s most epic act, massive street band What Cheer? Brigade. At one point, it seemed as if there were as many people in the group, gathered onstage and on the main floor as there were dancers, all romping together through a handful of swaying brass anthems that were as hypnotic as they were loud. The group’s explosive drumline had a lot to do with that. By now, the tequila was gone; so was a pocketful of Turkish taffy and Lebanese sesame crunch filched from one of the innumerable candy bowls placed around the venue by the organizers. Although everybody had been on their feet all night long, the remaining crowd looked like they really could have gone until dawn if the music had kept going. As the party did: a couple of rounds of ouzo and Souren Baronian classics on the stereo at a friends’ place up the block turned out to be the perfect way to wind down the best night of the year, musically speaking.

Wickedly Catchy, Edgy Balkan Tunes and an East Village Album Release Show by Cocek! Brass Band

Boston’s Cocek! Brass Band play original Balkan music with fresh, imaginative horn charts and tinges of reggae, rocksteady and dixieland. If New York’s Raya Brass Band are the Evil Empire, the class of the American league of Balkan bands, Cocek! Brass Band are the perennially dangerous Red Sox. Much as it’s a ballsy move for trumpeter/composer Sam Dechenne’s group to put that exclamation point in their name, they live up to it. They’ve got an intense, richly tuneful, intricately arranged new album, simply titled Round Two – streaming at Bandcamp – and a release show on April 14 at 11 PM at Drom. The lineup is one of the year’s best triplebills so far, starting at 10 with slinky, torchy, creepy female-fronted circus rock/noir cabaret band Egress with blazing No Small Money Brass Band sometime around midnight. Advance tix are $10.

Flutter, the opening track on the new Cocek album, also lives up to its name. It’s a funhouse mirror of brass, Dechenne echoed by flugelhornist Ezra Weller and trombonist Clayton DeWalt, tuba player Jim Gray anchoring the brightly biting harmonies over Grant Smith’s rat-a-tat tapan drum. The second cut, Found Water is a slowly swaying, darkly rustic number, sort of a mashup of bluesy oldtime gospel and Balkan funeral music – and then they hit a chorus with a chart straight out of vintage Jamaican rocksteady. No surprise, since Dechenne is also a member of long-running roots reggae band John Brown’s Body.

Speaking of which, the next track is Heads in the Cloud, a tasty, catchy Balkan reggae tune, right down to Gray’s catchy, purposeful bassline, the horns branching out and then reconfiguring on the chorus. Macedonian Wedding has tricky syncopation and an easygoing, upbeat vibe that darkens on the wings of an ominously chromatic DeWalt solo. Mr. Kapitan Tappan is a catchy shout-out to Smith’s prowess on the big standup drum, but it’s got bite, and it’s hardly a throwaway.

Rock Jumper is a showcase for the brass section’s subtlety and resonance as well as their pinpoint staccato attack. Springtime in Allston is state-of-the-art, a sizzling, rapidfire blaze of wickedly pulsing riffage. The Snake brings back a wry Balkan reggae feel tinged with hi-de-ho swing. Town Tax Man builds off a noir chromatic riff to an agitated three-horn round-robin, then back. Trek Through Town sounds like Dejan Petrovic‘s group covering the Skatalites, right up to a big, percussion-driven peak midway through. The album winds up with Up in Smoke, another showcase in edgy/resonant contrast, with a wry shout-out to a famous tv theme, The coolest thing about this album is that it doesn’t sound like a bunch of Americans taking a stab at Balkan music. They really have the fluttery doublestops, the odd (to us, anyway) meters and the edgy harmonies down cold. Count this as one of 2016’s best.

You might wonder why Cocek! Brass Band punctuate their name the way they do. Likely answer: a cocek is a popular Serbian dance. Try googling “cocek brass band.” You’ll probably get a bunch of links to sketchy Russian download sites.

Cocek! Brass Band Put the Exclamation Point in Original Balkan Dance Music

The last time Cocek! Brass Band played New York, their set uptown at Shrine had barely gotten underway before a pretty girl in the crowd went to the bar and bought them a couple of rounds of shots. Which were gone by the next song. And the five-piece Boston Balkan group played like they’re used to that kind of stuff. Especially frontman/trumpeter Sam Dechenne, who’s also a member of innovative klezmer dance unit Klezwoods…and is best known as a regular member of long-running second-wave roots reggae band John Brown’s Body. Although JBB probably get offered stuff that’s smokier than what these guys were downing in between songs.

What sets Cocek! Brass Band apart from so many of their colleagues in the thriving American Balkan demimonde, other than that exclamation point, is that Dechenne writes the songs. Beyond the bristling chromatics, tricky rat-a-tat rhythms and rapidfire, redline solos is a cheery but dynamically shapeshifting sensibility and a surprisingly wry sense of humor that looks back to Eastern European dance music while taking it to new places. The band are bringing their high-octane show back to New York on what might be the year’s single best night of music, at Drom tomorrow night, September 25, as part of the New York Gypsy Festival. The Coceks open the night at 8:30 followed by explosive, theatrical Balkan punk rock band Bad Buka at 10, then Raya Brass Band – the tightest and most epic among all the great Eastern European acts in New York – and then similarly fiery if somewhat more traditional Baltimore Romany dance band Balti Mare, whose name means “big pond” in Romanian, hitting the stage at 1 AM the morning of the 26th. Advance tix are $15 and are still available at the club as of today.

Cocek! Brass Band’s debut album Here Comes Shlomo came out last year. It’s always fun to see a prediction come true, but they more than validated what this blog said about it, “ A good indication of the blend of virtuosity and raw power that this crew brings to the stage.” One of that night’s many high points was a minor-key number with a beat that veered between what could be reggae and could be disco – which, when you think about it, is disco in Serbia. Jaunty broken chords lept from the end of the band’s phrases, trumpet, trombone, tuba and standup drum all in sync.

A loopy, catchy, downwardly spirailng trombone riff contrasted with Dechenne’s calm, sailing lines on the next tune; then they slowed things down with a blazingly resonant, undulating  9/4 groove, Dechenne switching from intense to jaunty and carefree with a long solo against the rest of the band’s percolating harmonies. Then they switched to an edgy, circling, minor-key Ethiopiques drive! And a doomy waltz after that. There was a lot more material in the set which made it neither onto the tape nor into longterm memory.. Considering that the show was on a sketchy block in Harlem and it was late on a work night, and that there was still a decent crowd in the house, the Drom show will undoubtedly draw a lot more people: there will be line dancing.

State-of-the-Art Balkan Brass Tunes and a Mehanata Show from Cocek Brass Band

Sam Dechenne plays trumpet in long-running second-wave roots reggae band John Brown’s Body. But like a lot of brass players, he’s fluent in many styles, and has a thing for Balkan music, a style he explores in first-class Boston Slavic party band Klezwoods. And that turned out to be his holy grail, no surprise considering that hearing Fanfare Ciocarlia for the first time as a middleschooler changed his life forever. He’s got a new project, Cocek Brass Band, with a blazing new album Here Comes Shlomo (a pun on Dechenne’s first name), and an album release show coming up on Oct 4 at around 9 at Mehanata. The album is streaming at the band’s music page; cover is $10 and worth it: they played a New York show this past summer at Shrine and ripped the roof off the place.

On one level, they come across as sort of a Boston counterpart to New York’s Raya Brass Band, with smart, out-of-the-box original songwriting and fearsome chops. But on album at least, Dechenne’s group focuses more on tunesmithing than volcanic jams: what soloing there is here, and there’s not a ton of it, is extremely focused and terse. The band also has a theme song, which they use to kick off the album , tuba player Jim Gray providing a rat-a-tat backdrop while the two trumpets and trombone slink their way from moody hints of reggae to rapidfire chromatics over drummer Grant Smith’s echoey tapan drumbeat.

The title track morphs back and forth between a droll disco beat and a more traditional, swaying rhythm; likewise, the band sandwiches a little New Orleans street music amidst the minor-key riffage. A slow, pensive number, Vagabond Dreamin’ balances the balmy and the bittersweet, Dechenne ornamenting his solo with spiraling Serbian phrasing. Clown Walk, a waltz, actually keeps a lid on most of the cartoonish stuff – unless you’re thinking Edward Gorey. Like most clowns, this guy seems to be a pretty disquieting guy.

Juggler’s Journey brings back a slinky, bracingly bubbly minor-key groove with subtle hints of flamenco and even hip-hop. Who Cares opens as a series of variations on a challenging, trickily rhythmic riff, then goes in a more lingering, low-key, Spanish-tinged direction before the band brings it to a boil again. The coyly titled Drone Song builds out of a suspenseful, cinematic intro to a slow waltz, animated phrasing from the trumpets rising over long sustained tones from the tuba or trombone.

Magic Man and His Magic Hat and His Magic Vest works colorful hooks over long, clip-clop vamps. Figs or Dates returns to a jaunty blend of Romany firepower and a goodnatured New Orleans strut, with a dynamic, intense, trilling Dechenne solo. The band hangs out in a major key all the way through the slow, steady A’bab Cada over the broken chords and dancing basslines emanating from Gray’s tuba. That’s right, a dancing tuba: this guy really makes the big thing sing. And then they pick up the pace at the end.

The epic Slow Jump, Fast Fall pretty much follows the tangent implied by the title: a trudge up the mountainside, a long scampering ride down the flume where Dechenne gets to air out his extended technique, and a droll return to the opening theme. The album winds up with There Goes Shlomo, a more straight-ahead variation on the title track, and then the album’s lone vocal number, Mountain Love Song. brightly cheery horns holding the center as the singer attempts to hit his notes. It’s a great album and a good indication of the blend of virtuosity and raw power that this crew brings to the stage.

John Brown’s Body Puts Out Their Best Studio Album in Ages

Imagine your band’s been on the road for the better part of twenty years. You can sell out pretty much any midsize venue you feel like playing. Recordings of your concerts – both the ones made by fans, and your own, which you give away for free – are shared and prized by collectors around the world. Why on earth would you make a studio album – let alone one that sounds ok on phone earbuds, but which sounds AMAZING on a good stereo system?

Because you play so many shows that you’re bound to sell out whatever you manufacture? Because people who are stoned enough will buy pretty much anything? Or maybe just because the band is in a good place right now and you want to document this particular period in its history? Maybe all of the above. Veteran roots reggae band John Brown’s Body are playing Brooklyn Bowl tonight around 9 and as of this afternoon, it isn’t sold out yet – get to the venue by 8 and you should be fine. And you can pick up their new album Kings & Queens, just out from the folks at Easy Star Records, if you want a souvenir that sounds as good as the concert.

John Brown’s Body has been making solidly decent album since the early 90s. They used to have more of a dub vibe, with wah-wah on the keys of all things, and more orthodox, “praise Jah” type lyrics. These days, they’re louder and more driving, Mike Keenan’s guitar pushing the music with Nate Edgar’s bass and Tommy Benedettt’s drums, Jon Petronzio’s keys adding a dubwise edge, their killer horn section usually lighting the way melodywise.

The opening track on the new album has the hook in the bass – it’s irresistible, just like the horn charts. Although trumpeter Sam Dechenne, saxophonist Drew Sayers and trombonist Scott Flynn – who write all their own arrangements – look back to vintage 1960s Motown and soul, the brass on John Brown’s Body albums and this one especially is good enough to recommend to gypsy music fans. They follow with a big anthemic sway on the second track, Invitation (which sounds like “invocation” – it’s that kind of thing).

The Burning Spear influence is all over this record. Track three, Plantation, reminds of Man in the Hills, a snowstorm of keyboard EFX kicking off a brief bass-and-drum interlude before the song picks up again.Shine Bright has the gleaming horns and stutter pulse of late 80s Spear mixed with jazzy 70s Stylistics-style ballad chords. And just as Jah Spear did for one of his heros, Marcus Garvey, JBB finally send a shout out to the guy whose name they took – and reference Old Marcus Garvey along the way.

Empty Hands has a noir Ghost Town/Satta Massaganna arrangement to match its  “Mr. Officer leave me alone” lyric with a little hip-hop vibe as it winds out. Fall on Deep sounds like a Marley love ballad from the Kaya days. Dust Bowl might be the best track here, with its big, intense, swirly minor-key ambience and ominous global warming-era lyrics. By contrast, The Battle reverts to the band’s more anxious, stripped-down spiritually-minded sound from the Kevin Kinsella days back in the 90s, frontman Elliot Martin letting his vocals linger (and is that autotune or just some weird flange effect on the harmonies?!?).

As far as horns go, the arrangements on the dub-influenced Starver are gorgeously dark and bluesy; on Deep Summer, arguably the album’s best track, they’re warm, enveloping and absolutely beautiful. The album closes with Searchlight, which is not a reggae song – it’s a big mid 80s style new wave pop anthem with a sequencer, like ZZ Top used to use. It also offers a nod to P-Funk, sonically if not rhythmically. It sounds suspiciously like it was written to close a show on a, um, high note, a big singalong where everybody in the choom gang who hasn’t reached total absorption yet gets an excuse to raise their lighter to their lips one final time.

Klezwoods Puts Out a Wild, Intense, Lush New Album

Klezwoods’ new album is a blast, plain and simple. If you like one haunting melody after another, this is for you. In the spirit of the dozens of gypsy and gypsy-punk bands that have sprung up in this century, Klezwoods are taking Jewish music in the same direction. What they do can be wild, but it’s also lush and often pensive – as the music of the gypsies often is. Their new album, The 30th Meridian – From Cairo to St. Petersburg With Love – is as informed as much by jazz as it is by any other style, including wildly successful diversions into Macedonian, Serbian, Egyptian, Greek and Jamaican music. The ten-piece band’s lineup is slightly expanded from last time around, with – are you ready for this – Joe Kessler on violin, Sam Dechenne (of John Brown’s Body) on trumpet, Jim Gray on tuba, Grant Smith on drums, Greg Loughman on bass, Michael McLaughlin (of Naftule’s Dream) on accordion, exotica and cimbalom jazz genius Brian O’Neill on percussion, Alec Spiegelman (of Miss Tess’ band the Bon Temps Parade) on clarinet and sax and Tev Stevig on electric guitar and oud, plus Becky Wexler on clarinet and vocals and Daniel Linden on trombone.

Wexler is training to be a cantor – and what a great destination for her. What a voice! Her wounded, unselfconsciously soulful alto and also her chillingly lyrical, crystalline clarinet grace a traditional song simply titled Shoes, which begins as a brooding, sad Russian waltz and quickly travels to the dramatic place where Bollywood meets the Jewish diaspora. The first track is characteristically catchy but edgy, balancing the tuba at the bottom,clarinet at the top, trilling uneasy trumpet playing call-and-response with the ensemble, Egyptian style over clip-clop percussion. After that, Dechenne’s Egypt Trip goes scurrying up to a Middle Eastern crescendo, his psychedelic trumpet (go figure, duh!) breaking it down before it comes back, stately and intense.

Kessler’s scurrying violin solo hands off to Spiegelman, who hands off to the rest of the band in turn on the wickedly fun Harmonika. Likewise, voices alternate throughout the band over O’Neill’s hard-hitting drums on the Balkan-flavored Hot Wheels. A Glass of Wine, a reggae arrangment of a traditional klezmer tune, features more rapidfire, intense clarinet.

Brass Belly, a tricky Serbian-tinged tune, layers cool clarinet over a flutter brass pulse and Stevig’s absolutely amazing electric oud before the violin takes it up with a spin. Play to Win, by Stevig, a wickedly catchy, unpredictably shapeshifting song features Stevig’s guitar doing all kinds of wild spiraling phrases. After the brisk, biting oompah clarinet tune Pick Up and Go, they follow with the album’s best song, Charambe, also by Stevig. A wicked blend of 60s style psychedelic rock and klezmer, it sounds like the Electric Prunes, Stevig bending his notes to their logical (or illogical) extremes.

What’s left here? A couple of rapidfire, jauntily defiant, accordion-fueled romps, one of them by Loughman; an absolutely joyous shout-out to Israeli music; and an unexpectedly quiet wee-hours scenario to close out the album. Who is the audience for this? Anyone who loves gypsy music, or Middle Eastern music, or the klezmer repertoire. It used to be that klezmer was a gateway drug to gypsy music, now it’s vice versa. Two diasporas, two styles worshipped by people whose ancestors frequently held this music in contempt. And one of the best albums of 2012. Klezwoods plays the cd release show at Spike Hill on a killer doublebill on Sept 8 at around 9, followed by excellent skaragga band Karikatura. Klezwoods are also at City Winery for the weekly klezmer brunch at around half past eleven the following morning, Sept 9 – yikes!