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Sarah Small’s Provocative Secondary Dominance: Highlight of This Year’s Prototype Festival

Sarah Small’s work draws you in and then makes you think. It says, “Get comfortable, but not too comfortable.” It questions, constantly. Throughout her fascinating, understatedly provocative multimedia work Secondary Dominance last night at Here – part of this year’s Prototype Festival – there was so much happening onstage that the leader of the Q&A afterward confessed to having a page worth of notes and no idea where to start.

Executive produced by Rachelle Cohen, the roughly hourlong performance began immediately as the audience settled into their seats, a warm, lustrous voice singing a gorgeous love song in Arabic wafting over the PA. Who was responsible for this gentle and reassuring introduction? It turned out to be Small’s Black Sea Hotel bandmate Shelley Thomas, seated stage right with an assortment of drums and percussion implements.

About midway through, the composer herself emerged from behind her two keyboards and mixing desk – mounted on a podium colorfully decorated like a curbside shrine out of the George Lucas universe – and stooped over, to the side as a trio of dancers – Jennifer Keane, Eliza S. Tollett and Carmella Lauer, imaginatively choreographed by Vanessa Walters – floated on their toes. Meanwhile, Small’s chalked-up collaborator Wade McCollum lurked tenuously behind her as her calmly uneasy vocalese mingled with the atmospherics looming from Marta Bagratuni’s cello, Peter Hess’ flute and Thomas’ voice and drums. A simultaneous projection of the action onstage played on a screen overhead, capturing Small’s lithely muscular, spring-loaded presence in shadowy three-quarter profile.

McCollum’s wordless narrative behind Small’s music explores power dynamics, memory and family tension. Gloria Jung and Henry Packer exuded regal integrity and a stolidity that cut both ways:  there was a moment where someone tried to pry something out of someone’s hand that was as cruelly funny as it was quietly vaudevillian. Ballet school, its rigors and demands was another metaphorically-loaded, recurrent motif, and the dancers held up under duress while barely breaking a sweat. McCollum’s ghostly character didn’t emerge from a fetal position until the spectacle had been underway for awhile, which ended up transcending any ordinary, otherworldly association.

What was otherworldly was the music, which, characteristically, spans the worlds of indie classical, art-rock and the Balkan folk traditions that Small has explored so vividly, as a singer, arranger and composer since her teens. What’s most notable about this surreal, nonlinear suite is that while it encompasses Balkan music – with brief, acerbic, closer harmonies sung by Small, Thomas, Bagratuni and McCollum, in addition to a projection of a lustrously lit seaside Black Sea Hotel music video directed by Josephine Decker  – the majority of it draws on western influences. Inspired by a series of dreams and an enigmatic, recurrent character named Jessica Brainstorm – who may be an alter ego – the sequence has the same cinematic sweep as Small’s work for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, grounded by Bagratuni’s austere, sometimes grim low register, Hess sailing warily overhead, sometimes mingling with the voices and electronic ambience. As the show went on, the music grew more detailed, with interludes ranging from gently pulsing, midtempo 80s darkwave, to rippling nocturnal themes evocative of Tuatara’s gamelanesque mid-90s psychedelia.

The work as a whole is a stunning example of how Small so often becomes the focal point of a collaboration that brings out the best in everyone involved.  Over the years, these efforts cross a vast swath of art forms: from her playfully ambitious body of photography in the early zeros, to Black Sea Hotel, to her surrealistically sinister starring role in Decker’s cult classic suspense/slasher film Butter on the Latch, and her lavish “tableaux vivants” staged earlier in this decade, equal parts living sculpture, slo-mo dance flashmob, dada theatre and fearless exploration of intimacy in an era of atomization, data mining and relentless surveillance. Small and McCollum have plans for both a more small-scale, “chamber version” of this piece as well as an epic 1200-person version for the Park Avenue Armory, still in the early stages of development. For now, you can be provoked and thoroughly entertained at the remaining three performances at 9 PM, tonight, Jan 12 through 14 in the downstairs theatre at Here, 145 6th Ave south of Spring (enter on Dominick Street). Cover is $30.

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The Sway Machinery and Hydra Stage a Magical, Otherworldly, Psychedelic Collaboration at Joe’s Pub

While a whole lot of New Yorkers were up at Lincoln Center Out of Doors to hear Lucinda Williams, an audience of cognoscenti filled Joe’s Pub to witness this city’s most auspicious musical collaboration this year, between the magically Balkan-influenced all-female trio Hydra and the Sway Machinery, who could be described as a cantorially-influenced psychedelic desert rock band. Hearing frontman/guitarist Jeremiah Lockwood’s impassioned, melismatic baritone amidst the pulsing, distantly gospel-inflected harmonies of Luminescent Orchestrii’s Rima Fand, Nanuchka’s Yula Beeri and Black Sea Hotel‘s Sarah Small was viscerally spine-tingling. Lockwood might be the strongest male singer in New York, and stood out even more when bolstered by the three women’s uneasy, deep-sky close harmonies.

It wasn’t until late in the set that Fand persuaded Lockwood to explain the origins of his band’s songs. He related modestly that they drew on Jewish liturgical melodies that vary widely, depending on where in the Jewish diaspora you come from, to the point of being very individual, from family to family. What he didn’t add is that he’s the scion of a famous cantorial legacy, and that the Sway Machinery’s songs take those millennia-old themes into the present day via a host of influences every bit as global.

Lockwood’s guitar playing draws equally on his mentor, the late country bluesman Carolina Slim, as well as loping, hypnotic Saharan Tuareg rock and Afrobeat: it wouldn’t be a stretch to call the Sway Machinery the American Tinariwen. When his voice wasn’t reaching for the rafters with a soaring, sometimes imploring intensity, he drove the band with his slinky, snaky, incisively spiraling Telecaster riffs and a handful of snarling, tightly coiled solos. In one of the night’s most dynamic numbers, there were two basslines going, Nikhil P.Yerawadekar on the low end and Lockwood slightly higher up the scale, holding down his low E with his thumb while fingerpicking out a snaky lead at the same time. Strat player Tim Allen alternated between airy, astringent textures, jangly interplay with Lockwood and a couple of blue-flame solos. Drummer John Bollinger kept a tricky, rolling beat going, punctuated by Matt Bauder’s tenor sax and Jordan McLean’s trumpet.

Midway through the set, the Sway Machinery left the stage to Hydra to sing a brief and tantalizingly dazzling, eclectic set. The interplay between the three personalities was as interesting to witness as their harmonies. This may seem overly reductionistic, and it probably is, but Fand the mystic, Beeri the Secretary of Entertainment and Small the badass, tall and resolutely swaying to the beat, brought a dynamism and nuance that was every bit the sum of its formidable parts.

Their first number without the band behind them evoked Small’s innovatively intimate arrangements of Bulgarian choral music. While that’s what she’s made a name for herself with in the popular trio Black Sea Hotel, Beeri and Fand proved just as much at home in those eerie close harmonies and microtones. From there they ventured into a diptych of flamenco and Ladino-tinged Spanish folk tunes, then a starlit, mandolin-driven lullaby by Fand, a stark Russian Romany tune, then the Sway Machinery returned for the night’s most intricately orchestrated, ornately thrilling mini-epic. Between everyone onstage, they sang in Hebrew, Spanish, Ukrainian and English. Let’s hope this isn’t the only time this otherworldly, entrancing collaboration gets staged in this city.

Haskell Small Takes a Harrowing Journey Inward with His Latest Raptly Mystical Suite

Pianist Haskell Small‘s work is a prime example of the rewards of finding a muse and following that inspiration to the deepest reaches possible. He’s carved himself out a niche as a composer and champion of quiet, mystical, often viscerally haunting sounds. His 2014 album The Rothko Room: Journeys in Silence is a masterpiece of spare, lingering, often chilling inwardly-directed themes. He’s also one of the world’s foremost advocates for the otherworldly, bell-like music of Federico Mompou. Last night at St. Malachy’s Chapel in midtown, the pianist played an unselfconsciously transcendent solo program comprising both his own suite A Journey in Silence: Reflections on the Book of Hours, along with the New York premiere of John Tavener’s Pratirupa. Small is reprising the program tonight, May 10 at 8 PM at the Crypt at the Church of the Intercession. 550 W 155th St. If there’s ever been music written for the spacious sonics of a sacred space, this is it. The concert is sold out, but if you’re in the neighborhood, it would be worth checking to see if there are any no-shows.

Introducing the program, Small – father to another individualistic, intense composer, Sarah Small – explained that as he saw it, silence doesn’t equate to the absence of sound. Rather, it’s an invitation to look inward, a proces that can be pretty scary. The new suite, due out later this year, follows the moods of a monastic day’s routine. It’s replete with moments of lingering woundedness, quiet torment and even despair, yet offers a surprising counterbalance to all that trouble. Small began it with one of his signature, poignant, plaintive belltone themes: Satie, and Messiaen, and Debussy in gamelanesque mode echoed vividly in the distance.. The music peaked with incisive cascades of eerie tritones. then receded back into uneasy, resolutely unresolved territory.

Small very cleverly cached a couple of catchy, unexpectedly upbeat motives – a muted fanfare of sorts that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Cesar Franck epic, along with a brief cathedral chime – within its architecture, and then deftly inserted variations on each throughout the suite. This made room for an unexpected optimism throughout an often harrowing journey. Shostakovich does this, sometimes Rachmanininoff too. It’s a hard trick to pull off, but as Small finally reached an almost reluctantly heroic crescendo, the payoff was not explosive but mighty all the same. And then he descended toward stillness again, gracefully, until a few final, increasingly spacious, weightily suspenseful chords that ended with sn almost imperceptibly whisper.

The Tavener turned out to be considerably different. On one hand, there was a clear connection to the first part of the program, considering ite bell motives and stately, strolling, sometimes folksy hymnal passages. On the other, it was as if Small was reminding that he can also play fiercely when he wants. And was he ever required to here! But he gamely tackled its thorny thickets of chiseling, Louis Andriessen-ish righthand riffs over an exhaust cloud of lefthand rumble, each of those interludes kicking off with an almost droll upward glissando. That was when he wasn’t mining the composer’s pensive, Chopinesque prelude segments for as much rapture and wonder as he could conjure. But ultimately, it wasn’t up to the level of Small’s own magic. He encored with a Bach invention, a well-chosen benediction. After journeying so far inward with the rest of the program, the experience was akin hearing it for the first time, a richly gentle offering of comfort and joy.

Ensemble Hilka Bring a World Wiped Out by a Nuclear Disaster Back to Life at the Ukrainian Museum

Say you record an album, and for all intents and purposes, the band goes on hiatus the moment the session is done. Three and a half years later, you regroup and perform those songs for the first time since then. And what you’re singing isn’t the music you grew up with – it’s an idiom from a country in another time zone, in an ancient dialect of a foreign language with a different alphabet and a completely alien system of harmony. That’s the challenge that the roughly fifteen-piece choir Ensemble Hilka rose to meet Saturday night at their sold-out show at the Ukrainian Museum in the East Village.

The group – comprising some of the foremost musicians playing Balkan and Slavic music west of the Danube – first came together when singer Maria Sonevytsky enlisted legendary Ukrainian singer and archivist Yefim Yefremov to come to New York to conduct a series of master classes in some of the most ancient, otherworldly folk music from throughout his travels. One of Yefremov’s many areas of expertise turned out to be music from the irreparably toxic region surrounding the Chornobyl [spelling transliterated from Ukrainian] nuclear power plant, largely depopulated since the 1986 disaster there. The New York pickup group’s enthusiasm and aptitude for this largely forgotten repertoire was such that it resulted in the recording of the just-released Chornobyl Songs Project: Living Culture from a Lost World album for Smithsonian Folkways. Since many of the performers on the album are busy with their own projects, the choir members went their separate ways after recording it (although more than one new group, including the lustrous vocal trio Zozulka, first assembled as a result of the session).

Throughout the first half of the concert, the men and women of the choir alternated between songs, opening with boisterous numbers puncuated by animated call-and-response and triumphant swoops and dives as a phrase would reach the end. As the show went on, the full group would assemble, then regroup in subsets. The songs on the program, loosely assembled to trace the rituals and festivities through a year of village life to the immediate east of Kiev, had largely disappeared from the area by the time Yefremov went out to collect them back in the 70s. Their content is pretty universal: guys cajoling girls to come out…and striking out; a musician gone off to war and missing his collection of instruments; and various harvest, marriage and work songs. The melodies varied from simple, anthemic and largely minor-key to more complex, with occasional use of the eerie close harmonies common to Balkan music. Yefremov, now in his seventies, projected strongly as he led the group – which also comprises members of the folk ensembles Yara Arts Group and the Ukrainian Village Voices – through a couple of numbers, and then delivered a spare, pensive number solo, a-cappella.

The second half of the show featured individual band members performing traditional repertoire from their own projects. Hearing Eva Salina – the Romany music diva and leader of a wild, psychedelic, jazz and reggae-tinged brass group – and Bulgarian music reinventors Black Sea Hotel‘s Willa Roberts work every mighty inch of their spectacular vocal ranges out in front of the group was spine-tingling, They’d later regroup with Shelley Thomas (also of Black Sea Hotel) as Zozulka, for more Ukrainian songs. And although Black Sea Hotel’s shapeshifting, microtonally-spiced new arrangements of ancient Bulgarian songs are a completely different idiom, the crowd, heavy with Ukrainian expats, responded vigorously to the stylings of Roberts, Thomas and recently acclaimed indie actress/songwriter Sarah Small.

Another singer who wowed the crowd with her visceral power and spectacular vocal range was alto Nadia Tarnawsky, in a duo performance accompanied by long-necked lute. Eva Salina picked up her accordion and treated the audience to a handful of wrenchingly plaintive songs from her amazing recent solo album. Bandura virtuoso Julian Kytasty – who has a reputedly sensational new album of his own due out this June – drew just as much applause for his stately, elegant, stark solo songs. And it was kind of a trip to see Sonevytsky, who for several years co-led the elaborately or not-so-elaborately costumed, irresistibly quirky lit-rock trio the Debutante Hour, decked out in a simple black suit and singing these haunting numbers alongside a veteran expert from a previous era, the CTMD’s Ethel Raim (who can still belt!).

Veveritse Brass Band, a rotating cast of New York Balkan brass talent who specialize in Romany party anthems, serenaded the crowd afterward at a reception downstairs. One wonders how many if any of these musicians would have even come to New York, let alone met each other and shared their passion for this magical music, if ten or fifteen years ago this city had been gentrified to the extent it is now.

The Best New York Concerts of 2014

Of all the year-end lists here, including the best albums and best songs of 2014 lists, this one is the most individual, and the most fun to put together. But as amazing a year for live music as it was, there were twice as many enticing shows that this blog never had the chance to cover as there are on this list. It’s called having a life – or trying to, in between concerts, anyway.

So consider this an informed survey rather than anything definitive, and ultimately, a reason for guarded optimism. Much as gentrification destroys the arts like Walmart destroys local economies, neither one has killed us. Yet.

What was the single best show of the year? Four multi-band bills stand out from the rest. Back in October at Trans-Pecos, charismatic Great Plains gothic bandleader Ember Schrag played a wickedly lyrical mix of mostly new material, some of it with a string section, the rest fueled by the snarling, spectacular lead guitar of Bob Bannister. Also playing that night: rapturously hypnotic, melancholic cellist/songwriter Meaner Pencil, dark art-rock duo Christy & Emily, plus a starkly entrancing set by two jazz icons, guitarist Mary Halvorson and violist Jessica Pavone.

A month earlier, renaissance woman Sarah Small put together a similarly magical night at Joe’s Pub featuring her Middle Eastern-inspired trio Hydra with Rima Fand and Yula Beeri as well as her otherworldly Balkan choral trio Black Sea Hotel with Willa Roberts and Shelley Thomas. There were also brief sets from the reliably entertaining all-female accordion group the Main Squeeze Orchestra and a trio version of one of NYC’s original Romany bands, Luminescent Orchestrii.

In mid-November, the Bowery Electric triplebill of hauntingly catchy Nashville gothic tunesmith/singer Jessie Kilguss, similarly lyrical and vocally gifted art-rock songwriter Ward White – both playing an album release show – and well-loved literate Americana rocker Matt Keating was pretty transcendent. And let’s not forget the Alwan-a-Thon back in January, the annual celebration of cutting-edge sounds from across the Arabic-speaking world held at financial district music mecca Alwan for the Arts. This one featured two floors of amazing acts including intense Lebanese-born pianist Tarek Yamani and his trio, luminous Balkan chanteuse Eva Salina, amazingly psychedelic 1960s Iranian art-dance-rock revivalists Mitra Sumara, sizzling Romany party monsters Sazet Band, and the all-star Alwan Ensemble, who played bristling jams on classic themes from Egypt, Syria and Iraq.

Rather than trying to rank the rest of these shows, they’re listed in chronological order:

Avi Fox-Rosen and Raya Brass Band at Rock Shop, 1/9/14 – Fox-Rosen had just released an album every single month in 2013, so this was a triumphant sort of greatest hits live gig for the sharply lyrical, catchy art-rock tunesmith followed by a wild vortex of Balkan jamming, the group down on the floor in front of the stage surrounded by dancers.

LJ Murphy & the Accomplices at Parkside Lounge, 2/1/14 – the charismatic, nattily dressed noir rocker led his explosive, blues-fueled band through a careening set of intensely lyrical, distinctively New York narratives.

Siach Hasadeh and Ichka in the basement at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue on the Upper West Side, 3/4/14 – every Tuesday, more or less, drummer Aaron Alexander – a prime mover in Jewish jazz circles – books a series of reliably excellent bands here. This twinbill kicked off with a rapturously haunting set by Montreal’s Siach Hasadeh followed by another Montreal outfit, the high-energy Ichka and then a jam with members of both bands joined by audience members.

Tammy Faye Starlite singing Marianne Faithfull’s Broken English at the Lincoln Center Atrium, 3/13/14 – a counterintuitive, sardonically hilarious reinterpretation of a haphazardly iconic new wave era album.

Jenifer Jackson at the Rockwood, 3/26/14 – the eclectic Austin songwriter brought her new band from her adopted hometown, reinventing older material and newer stuff as well with Kullen Fuchs’ rippling vibraphone as the lead instrument.

Gord Downie & the Sadies at Bowery Ballroom, 5/2/14 – a furious, often haunting sprint through the Canadian gothic Americana band’s most recent collaboration with the Tragically Hip frontman, ending with an explosively psychedelic Iggy Pop cover.

Hannah Thiem at Mercury Lounge, 5/29/14 – the haunting violinist/composer teamed up with an A-list string section to air out soaringly ethereal, cinematic new Nordic and Middle Eastern-tinged electroacoustic material from her latest album.

Nick Waterhouse at the Brooklyn Night Bazaar in Greenpoint, 6/13/14 – the LA noir soul bandleader and a killer pickup band featuring Burnt Sugar’s Paula Henderson on baritone sax brought moody Lynchian sounds to this grotesquely trendoid-infested space.

Kayhan Kalhor and Jivan Gasparyan at the World Financial Center, 6/14/14 – the legendary Iranian-Kurdish spike fiddle virtuoso and composer joined the similarly legendary Armenian duduk reedman for a rapturous, otherworldly duo set of improvisations on classic themes from each others’ traditions.

No Grave Like the Sea at Ramirez Park in Bushwick, 6/21/14 – after a day running around aimlessly trying to find bands playing daytime shows during the annual Make Music NY buskerfest, the volcanically sweeping, epic set by bassist Tony Maimone’s cinematic postrock band made it all worthwhile.

Karen Dahlstrom at the American Folk Art Museum, 6/27/14 – while she may be best known as one of the four first-rate songwriters in Bobtown, arguably the best gothic Americana harmony band around, Dahlstrom is also just as captivating as a solo performer. She took advantage of the museum’s sonics and sang a-cappella and ran through a tantalizingly brief set of haunting, historically rich original songs from her Idaho-themed album Gem State.

Serena Jost at the Rockwood, 6/29/14 – a lush, sweeping, richly enveloping, tuneful show by the art-rock cellist/multi-instrumentalist singer and her band. The all-too-brief, eclectic set by southwestern gothic bandleader Sergio Mendoza y la Orkesta about an hour beforehand at South Street Seaport – with psychedelic cumbias, rumba rock and the most twisted Fleetwood Mac cover ever – got the evening off to a great start.

Changing Modes at Bowery Electric, 7/19/14 – keyboardist/bassist Wendy Griffiths’ slinky, shapeshifting art-rock band has never sounded more anthemic or intense. And earlier that afternoon, scorching sets by the noisily atmospheric VBA, pummeling postrock/metal band Biblical and dark garage punks Obits at Union Pool kicked off what might have been the year’s single best day of music.

Jacco Gardner at South Street Seaport, 8/15/14 – he sort of plays the same song over and over, a dreamy, gorgeously chiming, psychedelic sunshine pop number straight out of London, 1967. But it’s a great song, and it was worth sticking around for what were essentially variations on a theme.

Bliss Blood & Al Street at Brooklyn Rod & Gun Club, 8/27/14 – the lurid but plaintive and haunting torch song icon teamed up with the brilliant, flamenco-inspired guitarist for a riveting, Lynchian set of mostly new material from their phenomenally good forthcoming album.

Gemma Ray at Rough Trade, 9/13/14 – the British noir songwriter played a similarly Lynchian set in a stark duo show, just guitar and drums, a showcase for her smart, individualistic, creepy playing and macabre songwriting.

The Dances of the World Chamber Ensemble at St. Marks Church, 9/14/14 – the improvisationally-inclined, cinematic instrumentalists ran through a magical blend of African, Middle Eastern, tango and jazz pieces by frontwoman/pianist/flutist Diana Wayburn.

Chicha Libre at Barbes, 9/15/14 – sadly, NYC’s funnest band have since gone on “indefinite hiatus,” whatever that means. At least they were on the top of their game when they played a wild, darkly psychedelic mix of trippy, surfy Peruvian psychedelic cumbia sounds in one of their last shows of the year.

Wounded Buffalo Theory playing Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway at Rock Shop, 9/19/14 – the art-rockers joined with a revolving cast including members of the Sometime Boys, Afroskull, 29 Hour Music People, and the Trouble Dolls for an impressively spot-on, epic recreation of the cult favorite 1974 art-rock album, WNYC’s John Hockenberry reading Peter Gabriel’s drolly surreal album liner notes in between songs.

Souren Baronian’s Taksim at Barbes, 9/23/14 – this isn’t the show reviewed at this blog back in June. That show featured the octogenarian multi-reedman and his hypnotic but kinetic band playing an unselfconsciously deep, soulful blend of Armenian music and incisive American jazz. His next gig there was even better!

Sherita at Barbes, 9/30/14 – the Brooklyn Balkan supergroup of sorts – reedman Greg Squared of Raya Brass Band, violinist Rima Fand of Luminescent Orchestrii, percussionis/singer Renée Renata Bergan and oudist Adam Good – played an alternately sizzling and sepulchral mix of originals and classic themes from Turkey, Greece and here as well.

Mary Lee Kortes at the Rockwood, 10/7/14 – the brilliant Americana songwriter and chanteuse and her band, feauturing John Mellencamp guitarist Andy York, aired out dazzlingly eclectic, intensely lyrical songs from her forthcoming album, The Songs of Beulah Rowley, a mix of saloon jazz, torch song and plaintive Americana.

The Skull Practitioners at Pine Box Rock Shop in Bushwick, 10/31/14 – it was the ultimate Halloween show, Steve Wynn lead guitar monster Jason Victor’s otherworldly, pummeling noiserock trio building a menacing but wickedly catchy vortex. That their half-hour set was as good as some of the four-hour bills on this list testifies to how volcanically good it was.

Karla Moheno at the Rockwood, 11/18/14 – the inscrutable noir songwriter and guitarist led a killer, Lynchian band through a mix of low-key, murderous, mysteriously lyrical narratives and more upbeat but no less shadowy material.

Mamie Minch at Barbes, 12/20/14 – this is why it always pays to wait til the very end of the year to finish this list. The charismatic resonator guitarist/singer and oldtime blues maven teamed up with Kill Henry Suger drummer Dean Sharenow for a killer set of blues from over the decades along with similarly edgy, sardonically aphoristic original material

If you’re wondering why there isn’t any jazz or classical music to speak of on this list, that’s because this blog has an older sister blog, Lucid Culture, which covers that kind of stuff in more detail.

A couple of things may jump out at you here. Nineteen of these shows were in Manhattan, eleven were in Brooklyn and one in Queens, which is open to multiple interpretations. More instructive is the fact that nineteen of the thirty-one were free shows where the audience passed around a tip bucket rather than paying a cover at the door. Most interestingly, women artists dominated this list. 26 out of of the 42 acts here were either women playing solo or fronting a group. That’s a trend. You’re going to see more of that here in the next couple of days.

Josephine Decker’s Menacing Balkan Noir Film Butter on the Latch Opens This Week

Filmmaker Josephine Decker is also an accomplished accordionist, and a member of all-female accordion group the Main Squeeze Orchestra. She credits the first time she saw a show by Raya Brass Band – the explosive Balkan brass jamband – as a life-changing experience. So it’s no surprise that experience would springboard what would ultimately become her first feature film, the deliciously creepy Butter on the Latch, which opens at the IFP Center, 30 John St. in Dumbo (on a double feature with her second full-length horror film, Thou Wast Mild & Lovely) on Nov 14, when it will also be out on VOD.

Reduced to most basic terms, Butter on the Latch contemplates how men disrupt or fracture relationships between women (although women do the same thing to men – talk to your buddy at the bar, if you can find him on a night when he’s not off with his girlfriend). The disruptions and fractures in this film come suddenly and unexpectedly, even if the progression toward those cataclysmic events makes perfect sense as the narrative unfolds. Sarah Small and Isolde Chae-Lawrence are pure dynamite in contrasting roles as students at Balkan camp, a retreat in what at first seems like an idyllic northern California woodland setting where bemused expats from Eastern Europe teach the eerie harmonies and befuddling rhythms of their native folk music to an eager cast of American kids.

On face value, Balkan camp seems like the funnest place in the world, where half the population is half in the bag by lunchtime, and where getting laid seems like part of the curriculum. Although Decker’s version maxes out the dread of its deep-woods milieu, it owes less to the Blair Witch films than to David Lynch (much of its iconography borrows heavily from both Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks), with a fond nod to Bergman’s Persona. The woman-to-woman dialogue couldn’t have been written any better, or more spot-on, than Sarah and Isolde (who each use their real first names in the film) improvise here. Their sometimes winking, sometimes feral, sometimes tender intimacy captures both the spontaneity and snark that Lou Reed was shooting for with the girls in the Velvet Underground’s The Gift, but couldn’t quite nail.

Ashley Connor’s cinematography careens in and out of focus, which is jarring at first, until it’s obvious that this story is being told from the point of view of a woman who literally can’t see straight. Complicating the picture is that Isolde relies on Sarah for stability, a misjudgment with disturbing consequences. One particular scene, the two staggering into the woods with what’s left of a bottle of wine as the sun goes down and then out, is as chilling as it is funny – and it’s absolutely hilarious.

Further complicating matters is the appearance of Steph (Charlie Hewson), a hunky guitarist that one of the duo can’t resist. A cat-and-mouse game with interchanging roles heightens the suspense, their interaction interspersed among what seem to be actual unstaged moments from music class or performances which help illustrate what the serious (i.e. not alcohol or sex-related) side of Balkan camp is all about. As cruel and cynical as it is surreal, Butter on the Latch is a riveting debut that solidly establishes Decker as an individual voice in 21st century noir cinema.

The soundtrack is sensationally good and appropriately haunting, with contributions by ensembles led by Merita Halili and Raif Hyseni along with Small’s own otherworldly Balkan choral trio Black Sea Hotel and others. It’s a playlist that deserves to exist as a stand-alone album: it could convert as wide an audience to Balkan music as the initial Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares albums did twenty-odd years ago.

Black Sea Hotel Top the Bill at One of 2014’s Most Spellbinding Shows

“This song’s about waiting for your neighbor to die so you can marry his wife,” one of Black Sea Hotel‘s three singers, Shelley Thomas, cheerily explained to the crowd at Joe’s Pub Wednesday night.

“Perky!” her bandmate Willa Roberts grinned. She was being sarcastic, of course. The ancient Bulgarian and Macedonian folk songs that the Brooklyn vocal trio sing date from an era when life was shorter and possibly more brutal than today, an atmosphere underscored by the music’s biting minor keys, edgy chromatics, eerie close harmonies and otherworldly microtones. The group treated the crowd to what was essentially a live recreation of their latest album The Forest Is Shaking and Swaying, along with a haunting, encore from the band’s debut cd. The three women held the crowd rapt with their original arrangements of both obscure and iconic themes, with intricate, intoxicating counterpoint, tightly dancing tempos, unexpected stops and starts and split-second choreography. There’s some irony in the fact that Black Sea Hotel’s often centuries-old repertoire is built on harmony as sophisticated and avant garde as anything being played or sung today.

Their camaraderie onstage was unselfconsciously warm, linking hands loosely as they sang, hugging each other here and there, high on the music. The three women’s voices are so similar that it’s hard to tell who’s singing what unless you’re watching. In terms of raw power, it’s a toss-up between Roberts and Thomas. but it seems that Small has the most astonishing range of the three: for a natural soprano, it’s stunning to witness how she can get so much power and resonance out of her low register And the three switch roles: Roberts got to handle the most highly ornamented, toughest leaps and bounds early on, then passed the baton to Small. Thomas is the latest addition to the group, reaffirming her status as one of the most eclectic of New York’s elite singers. That she managed to learn the entire set from memory on short notice wasn’t only impressive: without that feat, the concert probably wouldn’t have happened at all. And as spectacular as the three women’s vocal acrobatics were, it was the final number, with its long, slow fade down, building the suspense to breaking point, that might have been the high point of their set.

The opening acts, assembled by Small, were every bit as good. Her trio Hydra, with Rima Fand and Yula Beeri, a vehicle for original composition in antique Balkan and occasionally Middle Eastern styles, were first. The second song of their too-brief set, a soaring Balkan art-rock anthem of sorts, had a bulk and gravitas that that sounded infinitely more mighty than just three voices and a mandolin could deliver. Alternatingly sweeping and austere, they blended the Balkan and the Beatlesque.

A subset of the even mightier all-female accordion group the Main Squeeze Orchestra were next. Melissa Elledge, Josephine Decker, Rene Fan, Denise Koncelik, Rachel Swaner and Elaine Yau reminded that pretty much everything sounds good if played on an accordion, multiplied by six. A classically-tinged march, a couple of ominously cinematic themes, a coyly disguised generic new wave hit from the 80s, a campy anthem that sounded like it could be Queen but might have been something like Lady Gag. and a deliciously unexpected romp through a boisterous klezmer dance all got a seamlessly tight, winkingly virtuosic treatment.

And a trio version of one of New York’s original Romany-inspired bands, Luminescent Orchestrii (Fand and Sarah Alden on violins, with ringer Kyle Sanna on acoustic guitar) ran through a jaunty dance in medieval French; a bracing, hypnotically insistent Middle Eastern-spiced number; a similarly trance-inducing, circular Macedonian theme and a darkly blues-inflected art-rock violin number, all of which more than hinted at the kind of electricity this band can generate with all their members.

A Whirlwind East Coast Tour by Black Sea Hotel

New York’s own pioneering Balkan a-cappella choral group Black Sea Hotel are on East Coast tour this week. The trio of Corinna Snyder, Willa Roberts and Sarah Small distinguish themselves not only with their ethereal, otherworldly, sometimes absolutely bloodcurdling harmonies but also their imaginative, breathtakingly spectacular original arrangements of centuries-old songs from Bulgaria and the rest of Eastern Europe. Here’s the  tour schedule. Spread the word!

Wednesday, April 17th 5:30-7pm  – Washington, DC
Balkan Singing Workshop
The Field School “Club Room”, 2301 Foxhall Rd NW, Washington, DC 20007
Admission: $20 (for 4/17 Workshop plus 4/17 Germantown House Concert or 4/19 Holy City Church Concert:  $30 — $5 discount)
Email Willa at to reserve a spot
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Wednesday, April 17th 8pm  – Germantown, MD
House Concert
Relaxed hour long set in intimate setting
20505 Anndyke Way, Germantown, MD
Admission: $15  (for 4/17 Workshop plus 4/17 Germantown House Concert or 4/19 Holy City Church Concert:  $30 — $5 discount)
Email Susan Fraser to reserve
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Thursday, April 18th 5:30-7:00pm  – Richmond, VA
Balkan Singing Workshop
Illumination Studio
109 W. 15th St, Suite 104, Richmond, VA
Admission: $20, $15 students/seniors
Email Khalima or call 804.549.3982

Thursday, April 18th Doors 9:00, BSH  at 9:45pm.  – Richmond, VA
Balliceaux
203 N Lombardy Street, Richmond, VA
Admission: $5
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Friday, April 19th 8pm  –  Washington, DC
Church of the Holy City
Un-mic’d – gorgeous church acoustics
1611 16th Street NW, Washington, DC
Red Line to Dupont Circle
Admission: $20 (for 4/17 Field School Workshop plus 4/17 Germantown House Concert or 4/19 Holy City Church Concert:  $30 — $10 discount)

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For inspiration:
Black Sea Hotel on Youtube
Black Sea Hotel on Vimeo

Otherworldly Cutting-Edge Balkan Beauty from Black Sea Hotel

Yesterday evening’s program at the Bang on a Can Marathon was enticing, but it couldn’t have been any more cutting-edge than Brooklyn Balkan a-cappella trio Black Sea Hotel’s performance at a reverb-rich synagogue in Ditmas Park. Willa Roberts, Corinna Snyder and Sarah Small sometimes take largescale arrangements of Bulgarian folk music and strip them down to just three voices; other times they do their own inventive arrangements of traditional melodies. They sing microtonally, in close harmony, an effect which can be hypnotic, utterly chilling, or both. When they’re in the western scale, it’s invariably in a moody minor key. Rhythmically, they weave an intricate counterpoint between the three voices, sometimes with a dizzying series of handoffs, exchanging low, sustained lines with soaring, high ornamentation and the occasional guttural wail, trill or unleashed whoop. But they don’t overuse those devices: most of their songs tend to be plaintive and haunting.

This time out, they sang unexpectedly upbeat, brisk versions of material from their brilliant 2007 debut album (in those days, they were a quartet) along with some brand-new repertoire which turned out to be even more adventurous. They even left the Bulgarian behind and sang a couple of verses in English in one characteristically irony-drenched number, about a bride whose popularity turns out to be a mixed blessing: the wedding party is successful to the point where she has to go hungry in order for all the guests to get fed. Back when the now-unknown parade of songwriters came up with these old folk tunes, life was hard, and both the lyrical and musical content reflect that. The most haunting song of the night described a nightmare where the girl turns into a bird and eventually flies head on into a tree, killing her along with her bird boyfriend: that one ran up and down with a brooding chromatic Middle Eastern feel. But a particularly slow, resonant, poignant-sounding number was actually about the joy of getting a new pair of shoes (centuries go by but some things never change). Snyder joked that back in the day this was probably written, it was a big deal to have something other than a bundle of straw to wrap around your feet and there was more than a grain of truth in that. Other topics included having to ward off a deadly mythical bird-man and all sorts of drama having to do with weddings (again, some things just don’t change).

The trio’s voices are very similar. They all have spectacular range and seemingly just as much power in the low registers as when they go way, way up. There’s an inevitable element of surprise in the tricky tempos of what they sing, but they didn’t miss a beat (although they did have to start one over because it was too high – sometimes singers have to deal with the same kind of issues guitarists have when they capo up). Their newest song was a brand-new arrangement with a more modernist, hypnotic indie classical ambience, its resonance enhanced by the venue’s richly echoey acoustics. Their most energetic one boisterously and menacingly illustrated a couple of younger women giving their thirtysomething unmarried friend a hard time about it, “na na na NA na” raised to a power. The simplest was a catchy, sad waltz; the most ornate had all three taking turns switching off in a split second between low ambience and then embellishing the melody. The most stunning leap of the night belonged to Snyder; Roberts got to relish her way through the most intricately nuanced, stylized series of melismas while Small’s unearthly wail hovered intensely overhead. There’s both a matter-of-factness and a casualness in how they deliver these songs, as if they take their magic for granted. Watch this space for upcoming shows and check out their songs at the Free Music Archive.