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Tag: Steve Antonakos guitar

New York Guitar Star Homeboy Steve Antonakos Releases His Best, Most Eclectic Album

If you were a kid in New York back in the 80s, you had pretty much unlimited opportunities to see live music, theoretically at least. Sure, you could get into any club you wanted to: no venue owner was going to turn away a paying customer. The idea of bouncers hassling club patrons for identification was almost but not quite as faraway as the Orwellian nightmare of face recognition technology.

But getting into clubs could be expensive. Those who weren’t there may not realize just how much free live music, much of it outdoors, there was. For the sake of argument, let’s say you carried your beer into Union Square one evening. Everybody drank on the street back then since the implementation of “broken windows policing” as a means of making a revenue stream out of those least able to pay – kids and ethnic minorities, mostly – hadn’t gone beyond the drawing board.

Maybe you were drawn in by the twangy “rig-rock” sounds of the Blue Chieftains, who were doing a afterwork show on the plaza at the south end of the park. Maybe you wondered who was firing off that downward cascade of high-octane honkytonk guitar in that one big, stomping anthem.

That was Homeboy Steve Antonakos. The Blue Chieftains live on as a memory of a better time in New York history, a prestige piece of his resume. Since then, he’s played with a bunch of Americana outfits as well as the richly tuneful Greek psychedelic bands Magges and Dervisi, the latter with his fellow Greek-American guitar luminary George Sempepos. But Antonakos isn’t just one of New York’s great guitarists: he’s a strong songwriter too. His latest album, Bodega Rock is streaming at Bandcamp. His next gig is on March 30 at 9 PM at Espresso 77, 35-57 77th St. in Jackson Heights. where he does double duty playing his own material and then takes a turn on lead guitar with Drina Seay, New York’s answer to Neko Case. The closest train is the 7 to 74th St., but you can also take any train to the nearby Roosevelt Ave. stop.

The album opens with the Stonesy title track, guest guitarist Tim Heap fueling a shout-out to the 24-hour suppliers of Slim Jims, Bambus, beer and neighborly good cheer that help make this city so great. Antonakos sings the wry, aphoristic, ragtime-flavored The Improbability of Love backed by Bruce Martin’s piano, Seay a one-woman gospel choir.

Jeff Schiller’s smoky tenor sax wafts through the wistful shuffle Make It Swing, Antonakos raising a glass to an early influence in both jazz and pregaming. Seay sings the acoustic Americana ballad There’s Always Yesterday with tender restraint against Neil Thomas’ lilting accordion. Martin’s flurrying drums and Skip Ward’s bass propel One of Us, a pretty hilarious catalog of New York characters who might or might not exist. Awash in stormy layers of acoustic and electric guitars, He’s Still Not Over Her follows a much more ominous tangent.

Antonakos’ shivery lapsteel permeates the cynically shuffling It’s a Beautiful Day and its Sixteen Tons allusions; it might be the best song on the album. Seay ought to sing lead on this one: she’d hit it out of the ballpark.

With steel guitar and banjo lingering ominously in the background, the stark Nashville gothic ballad Poisoned Well is another standout. The album winds up with the gorgeously anthemic It Takes Time, another duet with Seay.

While we’re at it, could you imagine an album called 7-11 Rock? Actually, yes: it would be by Journey.

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Dervisi Recreate a Shadowy World of Gangsters, Underground Revolutionaries and Hash Smoke

As guitarist Steve Antonakos puts it, Dervisi – his rembetiko guitar duo with fellow six-stringer George Sempepos – plays “gangster blues.” The two put a psychedelic spin on the haunting, Middle Eastern-flavored sound borne on waves of displacement when hundreds of thousands of refugees, most of them of Greek heritage, returned to their ancestral land from Cyprus and Turkey in the wake of brutality and repression in the years right before World War I. Aliens from a Middle Eastern culture suddenly thrown into a Mediterranean one, many of these people became part of the underground resistance to tyranny on their new turf. Their music is plaintive, full of cruel ironies and soul and colorful stories, in the same vein as American blues.

For the last couple of years, Dervisi have held down a couple of regular monthly residencies in Brooklyn and Queens. Sempepos is one of the real mavens of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern psychedelia, dating from his days leading Annabouboula, one of the few Greek psych bands to reach an audience beyond the Aegean. These days, he also leads even harder-rocking surf band the Byzantones. Antonakos also has a background in Greek psychedelia, notably with Magges, and is a ubiquitous presence in the New York Americana scene. He’s one of the most interesting and instantly recognizable lead guitar virtuosos around, but in this band he plays mainly rhythm. It was fun to catch their Greenpoint residency at Troost earlier this month; on June 16, they return to their regular Queens haunt, the intimate Espresso 77 at 35-57 77th St. in Jackson Heights; take the 7 train to 74th St./Broadway..

In Dervisi’s music, you can hear where Dick Dale got his inspiration. This time out Sempepos had not only his his guitar but also a saz lute, which he hit pretty hard for all manner of plinks and clanks: it has a very distinctive, spiky sound, well-suited to the music’s serpentine, slinky grooves. Singing in Greek in his signature, sonorous baritone, he and Antonakos were joined by ex-Annabouboula clarinetist George Stathos, who added uneasily quavery melismatics and tightly wound spirals as the stringed instruments fluttered and sputtered behind him. One by one, Sempepos explained the songs for those in the crowd (probably everybody) who didn’t speak Greek. A defiantly catchy, steadily pulsing anthem celebrated the joys of smoking hash with fellow stoners. A jailhouse scenario, a bunch of bad guys conspiring what they were going to do when they got out, was more low-key.

The most memorable tune of the night might have been a stalking number told from the point of view of Death, who goes out looking for the party just like everybody else. The duo also took a couple of the classics that the Byzantones play and brought them full circle, back to their smoky, rustic, broodingly modal roots. Late in the set, they surprised everybody with a jaunty Bollywood freak-folk theme. This music may seem esoteric, and one level it is, but so is cumbia, and look at how that went global. Maybe rembetiko is next: if Antonakos and Sempepos get their way, someday it will be.

Good Cop and Bad Cop Review LJ Murphy Plus the Byzan-Tones

Good Cop: I think this is our big break. We’ve never been given an assignment this good.

Bad Cop: Back on the Columbus shuttle.

Good Cop: You mean the Scranton shuttle.

Bad Cop: I can’t get used to Scranton being a Yankees farm club. It was part of the Phillies system for as long as I can remember.

Good Cop: Now that’s going back a ways! Anyway, tonight we get to review LJ Murphy, the best rock songwriter in town, and then the Byzan-Tones, an awesome surf band! This is a big deal for us! You notice we’ve been getting better assignments lately?

Bad Cop: If you say so…

Good Cop: Sallie Ford & the Sound Outside, then Red Baraat, and this the best yet! If we don’t screw this one up there’s no telling how far we’ll go! [Good Cop elbows Bad Cop in the ribs]

Bad Cop [winces} Ouch! Don’t kid yourself. We haven’t had any assignment from this blog, good or bad, since July. We only got to cover that Sallie Ford concert because the blog had reviewed the record a couple of days before. We only got to do Red Baraat because the story wasn’t the music, it was that horrible experience in Central Park. So if this blog hadn’t reviewed LJ Murphy back in November, we’d still be in Col…I mean, Scranton.

Good Cop: Well, goodbye Scranton. hello Parkside Lounge on a Saturday night! [LJ Murphy,wearing a black suit and porkpie hat and holding a big black acoustic guitar, takes the stage along with his lead guitarist, keyboardist and drummer. With no bass, they launch into a swinging blues]

Bad Cop: I guess this is soundcheck.

Good Cop: I don’t think so. They did the song all the way through. I know this one: it’s Another Lesson I Never Learned.

Bad Cop: Guess they lost their bass player.

Good Cop: Not as far as I know. Nils Sorensen’s also in Brothers Moving, you know, that great Danish Americana band so maybe he had a conflict. And check out Patrick McLellan, he’s playing basslines with his left hand on the piano! At this point they don’t need a bass player…

Bad Cop [emphatically] Oh yes they do. But this guy’s good. Real good. Picked up on what was missing right away and took care of business.

Good Cop: I can’t believe somebody this good is playing the Parkside.

Bad Cop: Classic case of a guy stuck in the New York scene. In this town, you play to your friends. There’s no central scene with any significant following that you can leverage anymore. Here’s a guy who’s as good a songwriter as Richard Thompson, or Steve Earle, or Aimee Mann – and he’s younger than all of them – but he never got to take the band on the road. And he’s a band guy, not a singer-songwriter.

Good Cop: And he’s got a sizeable European following too. Funny how these things happen, isn’t it?

Bad Cop: Sound is not good tonight.

Good Cop: You know the Parkside, it can be good one night and not so good the next.

Bad Cop: It’s the piano. The low mids are feeding. And you can’t hear the electric guitar.

Good Cop: That’s Tommy Hoscheid. Great player. I see he brought his Gibson SG.

Bad Cop: He’s gonna need it.

Good Cop: Oh, I love this song. This is Happy Hour. Anybody who’s suffered through having to hang out with work “friends” in the financial district needs to hear this, it’ll validate you. And I love how LJ has rearranged it as an oldschool Stax/Volt shuffle.

Bad Cop: I liked it better when it was straight up janglerock. At least that’s one thing you can count on with this guy: you never know what you’re gonna get. Always rearranging things. The Faulkner of the three minute rock song. And you notice, he changed the lyric: it used to be “brotherhood of useless warts” instead of “brotherhood of sold and bought.”

Good Cop: That doesn’t rhyme with “one eye on the secretary and the other on the quarterly report.”

Bad Cop: It does if you’re from Queens.

Good Cop: True. “Their daytime dramas wait at home on videocassette,” that’s a really twisted line.

Bad Cop: It wasn’t back when he wrote it. These days you think of a spycam, or a webcam, right? Back then it was like something you Tivoed – except in analog, in real time, and everybody did it, and it actually wasn’t twisted at all. Ha, necessarily, at least. I remember this one time rushing home to record an episode of Survivor for this chick…

Good Cop: I can imagine where you’re going with that. Anyway – check out that creepy cascade from Patrick! This is Mad Within Reason, title track from LJ’s most recent album. “The music was sampled from Bach to James Brown, they saddled the mistress and lowered her down.” Nobody’s writing lyrics like that these days!

Bad Cop: Oh yeah they are. Four words for you: Hannah Versus the Many. But this guy’s good, always has been. “While everybody tried to become what they hate” – and another creepy piano cascade. This is sweet.

Good Cop: This next one’s even sweeter. Pretty for the Parlor – Long Island sniper gone on a spree. What a great tune this is – it’s anthemic, but not derivative or Beatlesque, it’s just good. And full of surprises. “The machinegun mama’s boy has called in sick today,” yum!

Bad Cop: OK, he’s gonna bring it down now. Waiting by the Lamppost for You: a period-perfect blend of sixties soul and blues. “Moonlight delays me, daylight betrays me, I’m hungover and showing my years.” Do you hear Nightclubbing, you know, the Iggy song?

Good Cop: Not unless it’s blasting through the wall from next door. Is that place still a disco?

Bad Cop: We’re at the Parkside, not the Mercury. Nobody next door. Deli across the street.

Good Cop: Oh yeah! Now this drummer’s good. A jazz guy maybe. They’re really rocking out Lonely Avenue – you know, the old Elvis song.

Bad Cop: Doc Pomus wrote it. Orthodox Jewish guy from Brooklyn. Now this is where you lose me, white guys playing the blues.

Good Cop: Aw, c’mon, the audience loves it.

Bad Cop: Once you’ve heard T-Bone Walker do Stormy Monday, all other versions are useless.

Good Cop: T-Bone Walker died before you were born.

Bad Cop: T-Bone Walker actually died when I was in the third grade I think. But I have the album.

Good Cop: This next song is Damaged Goods. What did LJ say, this is the first song he ever wrote in Brooklyn after moving from Queens?

Bad Cop: Guess he must have had the Wall Street job back then. Dungeoness and her crabs, more or less. This guy was on to what Eliot Spitzer and that crew were up to before anybody else was.

Good Cop: Now they’re going back from new wave to noir. This is Fearful Town. Did you hear Patrick quote Riders on the Storm?

Bad Cop [derisively]: Everybody does that. But this is a good song. This is why I came out tonight. Now this speaks to me. This is why I’m here and not someplace else. This guy speaks for anybody who used to live in this neighborhood. “Raided my old hangouts, put away my friends, now I’m sitting on a bonfire on a night that never ends.” LES, 2014, we are with you LJ Murphy!

Good Cop: You’re breaking character. You’re not supposed to do that. You’re supposed to hate everything.

Bad Cop: And you’re breaking the fourth wall. You’re not supposed to do that. What am I supposed to do? I complained about the sound. The blues medley left me cold. But I like this guy. Despite myself. Even this one. This next song is Nowhere Now. Sort of a twisted Chuck Berry kind of thing. I can’t figure it out for the life of me. Maybe it’s about America, all that “200 years of hoping, you’re not hoping anymore” stuff. What do you think?

Good Cop: That’s what I love about LJ’s songs, they draw you in and make you figure out what’s going on. Now this one’s easy, Blue Silence – they’re going to rock the hell out of this.

Bad Cop: And they do. And then they close with Barbed Wire Playpen, another Wall Street dungeoness crab scenario.

Good Cop: Ha ha funny.

Bad Cop: Couldn’t resist. And now we’re off to Otto’s.

Good Cop [about ten minutes later, at Otto’s Shrunken Head]: Holy shit, this place is packed. I haven’t seen Otto’s like this, maybe, ever.

Bad Cop: And we didn’t even get carded walking in.

Good Cop [laughs]: Nobody would ever card you.

Bad Cop: The doofus at the door, the skinhead, once chased me to the back and screamed at me until I showed him my I.D. This is recent, like, last year.

Good Cop: You can’t be serious.

Bad Cop: I’m completely serious. A guy at the bar saw the whole exchange, he came up to me afterward and said he couldn’t believe what he’d just witnessed.

Good Cop: I can’t either. But we’re here. And this band is great! What a cool doublebill it’s been, two venues, two great bands. That’s George Sempepos on lead guitar, I can’t see who’s playing bass or drums, and that’s Steve Antonakos on guitar too.

Bad Cop: They used to have an electric oud. Now that was wild. Psychedelic Greek surf music. I remember coming back from seeing them at the Blu Lounge in Williamsburg, this must have been around 2003 or so, completely shitfaced, this is at about four in the morning and I’m waiting forever at 14th Street for the F and I’d recorded the show so I pulled out my recorder and started blasting the Byzan-tones right there on the platform. And everybody was down with it.

Good Cop: You’re lucky you didn’t get arrested.

Bad Cop: Nobody arrests me!

Good Cop: OK. Now I can’t keep track of whether these songs are originals, or they’re psychedelic rock hits from Greece in the 1960s.

Bad Cop: My understanding is that they’re originals. But they sound like old Mediterranean stoner music. Except with more of a surf beat. Now this version of the band is a little brighter and a lot tighter than I remember them being.

Good Cop: And look, the crowd is really into this! This is music from a culture that doesn’t even use our alphabet and peeps are loving this! And the place is so packed that we can’t even get into the back room!

Bad Cop: Hold your fire. We would be able to if this was Lakeside. Oh yeah, Lakeside is gone now. But you get my point. And besides, it’s surf night, half the crowd came from Connecticut, they’re not going to leave for awhile. Captive audience. What every band needs in this century in this town.

Good Cop: Lots of Arabic sounds in this band. And minor keys, and tricky tempos. I can’t figure out what this one is in.

Bad Cop: Me neither. I’ve been drinking since before I left for the Parkside. Sorry.

Good Cop: Now this song is called Pontic Pipeline. Doesn’t sound like Pipeline, though.

Bad Cop: I think the reference is a little…um…what’s the word I want? Oblique? How does that sound ?

Good Cop: Sounds like Arabic rock to me. I love this band, and how the two guitars sometimes harmonize…and how Steve fakes how he’s playing with a slide even though he’s just bending the strings…and now George is singing. In a low, cool baritone, in Greek! What’s the likelihood of seeing something like this outside of Astoria?

Bad Cop: Or outside of Athens.

Good Cop: Point taken. OK, time to go. What a cool night this was! I can’t wait to do this again!

Bad Cop [pulls a flask from inside his trenchcoat and drains it]: OK, see you in July. Or in Col…I mean Scranton.

A Killer Free Download From Drina Seay

New York songwriter and bandleader Drina Seay seemingly came out of nowhere to become one of the great voices in pretty much every style of Americana music. For her, Americana means jazz and soul music in addition to country and blues. Her blend of all these vocal styles is one of the things that distinguishes her; the other is her songwriting, which draws equally powerfully on all of those genres as well. For the moment, she has an intriguing ep of original songs available for free download at her site. The lineup here features her on acousttic guitar along with Homeboy Steve Antonakos doing his usual virtuoso job, this time on both acoustic and electric, backed by Skip Ward’s terse bass.

The first song, Don’t Keep Me Waiting Too Long works off a catchy rustic fingerpicked bluegrass riff, Seay”s voice alternately stern and alluring, Antonakos firing off a sizzling solo. It wouldn’t be out of place in the Mary Lee Kortes songbook. The second cut, a big, torchy concert favorite, is Chase My Blues Away. Seay’s lurid, aching, reverbtoned vocals have a Neko Case menace matched by Antonakos’ blue-flame slide guitar: it’s one of the best songs written by anybody in this town in recent years. The last track, Whatcha Gonna Do, brings back Seay’s blend of bluegrass and classic pop chops. Watch this space for future show dates.

More of the Sunday Salon and Such

In a lot of ways, New York Music Daily’s Sunday Salon at Zirzamin is a misnomer. It’s a sophisticated scene, but it’s not exactly sedate. There’s no telling what’s going to happen. A lot of the time there’s something during the parade of performers leading up to the 7 PM featured set that upstages the headliner. Drina Seay covering LJ Murphy’s Waiting by the Lamppost for You was one of them. On one hand, watching her sing “I’m hungover and showing my years” was just plain funny (she looks about grad-school age: if you were a bartender, you’d card her). But that didn’t matter: she can wail when she wants, but she hung back and gave it a poignancy and dignity that you wouldn’t expect in a portrait of sheer dejection and despair.

Then there was Charming Disaster  – Kotorino’s Jeff Morris with Elia Bisker – doing a jaunty yet absolutely creepy four-handed ragtime piano piece and managing not to claw each other, Bisker’s moonscape resonance over Morris’ deadpan romp. They headlined Salon number 22 with a menacingly charming duo set with Morris mostly on guitar and Bisker on ukulele. She’s got the distant femme fatale persona down, dead cold, the perfect foil for Morris’ brooding gypsy and swing-spiked bounces and waltzes. They did not one but two songs about murder conspiracies gone wrong, a similarly failed twin grifters’ tale as well as moody, nocturnal material from each others’ catalogs. They make a good team, and they play a lot of shows: watch this space.

Lorraine Leckie followed them on a rare doublebill. This time out she had Calum Ingram on cello playing ominous low register ambience, with Banjo Lisa adding her stark, scary-beautiful otherworldly vocal harmonies. You would think that Leckie would have used this configuration to air out the darkest side – which is very, very dark – of her recent chamber pop songs, but instead she flipped the script and took a lot of her more upbeat rock catalog down into the abyss. What once had a T-Rex feel in this configuration sounded a lot more like Ziggy-era Bowie but with better vocals. She’s at the big room at the Rockwood on April 22 at 8.

To backtrack a little, Serena Jost headlined Salon 19 a couple of weeks previously . The multi-instrumentalist bandleader/chanteuse had a Joe’s Pub show to warm up for, and counterintuitively, instead of bringing the band and doing what would have been an open rehearsal, she went to a similarly stripped-down configuration featuring the eclectically brilliant Amanda Thorpe on slide guitar, keys, wood flute and also stark, scary-beautiful harmonies. Jost gets props for her cello work, but she’s also a brilliant singer – hanging out with Thorpe all these years has rubbed off. Through lithely jangling chamber pop, stark cello-and-voice tableaux, a stately 6/8 art-rock anthem, she radiated a lowlit allure with her precise, measured vocals, ripe to the point of drawing everyone in without falling off the vine. Then at Joe’s Pub, she and her full band – Julian Maile on guitar, Rob Jost on bass and horn, Rob DiPietro on drums, a keyboardist, and Thorpe and Greta Gertler on harmonies – soared and occasionally roared through most of the songs on her sensationally good new album A Bird Will Sing. The high point of the show – and maybe the past month, in terms of sheer sonic bliss – was the trio of high harmonies on an irresistibly pulsing, crescendoing version of Sweet Mystery, a song that could not have been more aptly titled.

The star of Salon 20 was Seay, who brought a full band featuring Eric Seftel on drums, Monica Passin a.k.a. L’il Mo playing bass as if she’d been doing it her whole life (she had about a week’s worth of practice, it turned out – who knew). “Is there a better guitarist in New York than Steve Antonakos?” one audience member wondered aloud as Seay’s lead player fired off keening pedal steel-style lines, cooly menacing Nashville gothic riffs and soulfully intricate jazz leads. Sassy, sophisticated country songs like the catchy shuffle Whatcha Gonna Do and the soul-infused, stop-time bounce Can’t Fight Falling in Love paired off against the absolutely gorgeous, minor-key Waking Up Crying, an absolutely evil, slide guitar-driven, oldtime swing-flavored All For You and the torchy, Julia Haltigan-esque Where Is the Moon Tonight. The high point of the set was when Seay segued from a slow, slinky, absolutely lurid take of one of her best ballads, Chase My Blues Away to Francoise Hardy’s Le Temps de L’Amour and gave that one a New York noir edge, singing in perfect French. A week later, Antonakos  would be the headliner at Salon 20 with his own tuneful, sardononically humorous songs, joined by Seay who this time added harmonies as she did so memorably back in the day at Banjo Jim’s before she started her own band.

The regular cast has had more memorable moments than can be counted. The Salon’s own Lauraly Grossman’s Cat Power-ish narratives edge closer and closer to noir, shadowy blues. LJ Murphy kicked off Seay’s set with a ferocious, bluesy intensity, hot on the heels of his careening trio performance at Hank’s Saloon the previous Saturday with Professor Jim Porter guesting and adding a whole other level of creepy surrealism on washboard. And this past week, Amelia Belle-Isle graced the stage with her ridiculously tuneful oldtime swing-flavored songs and subtle, alluring voice.

There have been plenty of other great shows happening around town, literally too many to chronicle here. The last week of the past month, the Wu-tang Clan’s Raekwon delivered a nonchalant, impressively tight, seemingly endless medley of his 90s hits at the swanky new Stage 48 way over past 12th Ave. on 48th Street. The place was packed with a mix of older people who knew every word and practicallly drowned out the vocals (the sound here seems to be a work in progress), and kids getting their first look at one of the icons of 90s East Coast hardcore. The Chef began with Cash Rules Everything Around Me and just got hotter from there.

Violinist Courtney Orlando and cellist Lauren Radnofsky’s performance of Luciano Berio sequenzas at the Miller Theatre last month deserves a mention. These pieces are like wartime: frenzied, anxious, cruelly frantic cadenzas that suddenly give way to still, suspenseful ambience, and while neither musician made it look easy – that would have been impossible – just getting through them without breaking strings would have been a triumph. That they were able to mine those weird juxtapositions for genuine emotion made the concert all the more worthwhile. That, and all the free beer the theatre was giving away.

The night of the Drina Seay show at the Salon, New York Junk played one of those oldschool New York punk bills at Bowery Electric. On one hand, their tunefully growling, glammy early 70s style isn’t covering any new ground, but just like the Dolls and Lou Reed, they’re catchy and they have the sound, and the wry, black humor-driven, black leather-clad doom and angst down cold. The bassist – formerly of 80s punk legends the B-Girls – bopped and pushed the songs along with catchy riffage underneath the Stonesy roar of the two guitarists.

This past week had a trifecta of good shows. Tom Warnick & World’s Fair played their usual gallows humor-driven mix of blue-eyed soul, horror surf, Doorsy jamrock and New England noir at Freddy’s Saturday night. Jerome O’Brien, late of the great Dog Show played a mix of his endlessly entertaining, literate rock tunes solo on twelve-string guitar at…where else…Zirzamin. And Maynard & the Musties brought their mix of wry oldschool country and dark highway rock to Cowgirl Seahorse down in South Street Seaport, Naa Koshie Mills’ violin/viola lines soaring over Dikko Faust’s trombone and Mo Botton’s richly twangy guitar. Frontman Joe Maynard writes some of the most nonchalantly poignant, richly tuneful songs around: it was a treat to hear him and the crew swing their way through the dark-sky, Neil  Young-ish expanse of Lightly Honest and the gorgeous yet utterly twisted Elvis Museum.

Brilliant Sideman Releases Another Solo Record

In the postapocalyptic world (not) of 12/22/12, what could there possibly be to listen to? Homeboy Steve Antonakos’ new acoustic album. As a sideman, Antonakos’ resume is second to none. Right now he plays with psychedelic rockers Love Camp 7, psychedelic surf rock band the Byzan-tones, haunting Greek psychedelic band Magges (a pattern is starting to emerge here, no?), torchy Americana siren Drina Seay’s band and also cajun rockers the Dirty Water Dogs. Somehow he finds the time to write songs and record them. He put out an album of several of his signature clever, wry Americana-flavored tunes a couple of years ago, and now he’s got a new one, all of it streaming at his Bandcamp site.

It’s the rare Xmas-themed album that doesn’t suck. The first track, a country waltz titled Poor Santa, finds the guy passsed out at the North Pole, where the the ho-ho-ho’s had taken their toll. As it turns out, the guy’s pension’s gone, his HMO won’t cover his health problems – in other words, this is a metaphor for everything that’s wrong with the world right now and in typical Homeboy Steve fashion, it’s funny – the jokes are too good to give away.

Then there’s December Roses, a pensively optimistic fingerpicked country-folk ballad. The big hit here is I Don’t Miss Summer, which screams out for a good janglerock band to cover it. This acoustic version only hints at the deliciousness of where a couple of Rickenbacker guitars could take these catchy changes, and Antonakos’ cynical lyric makes a good contrast with the sunniness of the tune. The ep ends with Dear Santa, a psych-folk tune with a weird twist – any way you look at it, it’s creepy and gets creepier as it goes along. Homeboy Steve Antonakos plays the Sunday Salon at Zirzamin at 7 PM tomorrow, Dec 23.

Gorgeous Esoteric Psychedelic Sounds from Magges

Some of popular New York Greek-American band Magges‘ music is incredibly haunting, packed with Middle Eastern-tinged chromatics. Some of the songs on their new album 12 Tragouthia (meaning “12 Songs,” streaming all the way through at their Bandcamp site) have a rousing gypsy quality; some are simply upbeat and happy. Some of them definitely qualify as psychedelic rock, while others are obviously folk tunes. With all the esoteric, trippy rock from outside the English-speaking world in the 1960s and 70s having gone global over the last decade, it’s time that fans of groups like Chicha Libre and Dengue Fever discovered the Greek side of the equation. That’s what Magges brings to the table (along with lots of ouzo at their rock club gigs): it’s unbeatable party music. Their signature sound blends the twin bouzoukis of frontman Kyriakos Metaxas and Nick Mandoukos, with Steve Antonakos on acoustic rhythm guitar, Ken Forrest on upright bass and Spiros Edgos on drums, with Susan Mitchell adding her signature intensity on violin on several tracks.

The hardest-hitting tracks fall under the category of remebetiko, the Middle Eastern-flavored “Greek blues” which was equally popular with hash smokers and the freedom fighters battling the dictatorship there in the 1930s and 40s. The long, intense opening cut, Ego Maggas Fenomouna works its way from a big, crescendoing minor-key twin-bouzouki intro into a stately, stalking anthem, sort of a less ponderous counterpart to a bitter Russian dirge. The band goes happy and spiky with Ouzo and its catchy major/minor shifts, then back into the shadows again with Ena Vrathi Pou’Vrehe, its thunderstorm of bouzoukis and Mitchell’s steady, catchy hook against suspenseful, biting, ringing staccato riffage. Athikopnigmeni, one of the most psychedelic cuts here, is basically a one-chord jam with a series of unexpected dynamic shifts: deep thickets of bouzouki picking, and a stark, minimal vocal interlude that plays call-and-response with the instruments as the song grows more intense and elegaic, with allusions to the Byrds’ Eight Miles High.

They follow that one with Pente Magges, which has a Boulevard of Broken Dreams vibe, but slower and without the tango beat, a motor scooter sputtering away at the end. Twisting and turning on a chillingly beautiful two-bar twin bouzouki interweave, Haremia Me Diamandia turns a rembetiko anthem into Greek psychedelic rock. Se Kitazo sets Greek folk to a gypsy jazz shuffle, yet another reminder of how influential and widespread gypsy sounds had become before World War II. There’s also the bouncy minor-key folk-rock of Giati Glykia Mou Kles; the tensely bitter, expansive rembetiko anthem Ximeromata; Thalasies Handres, with its tricky rhythms and singalong chorus, and a couple of rapidfire dance numbers that speed up faster and faster, daring whoever’s on the dance floor to keep up with them. Count this as one of the most fascinating and fun albums of 2012; stream it here.

Bad Guys Take Care of Business on Their Home Turf

The nonsequential current history of good music in New York continues today with Magges, who played a marathon show in lovely, tree-lined, well-shaded Athens Square Park in Astoria Tuesday night. “No Greek disco….only the music we grew up with, and love,” explained bandleader/electric bouzouki virtuoso Kyriakos Metaxas. The son of Evangelos Metaxas of the popular Trio Bel Canto, he’s keeping a legacy alive with this group, whose name is Greek slang for “bad guys” or “cool cats.” Magges’ website calls their repertoire “country music from another country.” This time out, the well-loved Greek-American band mixed up long medleys of folk tunes, hits from the 60s and ended with a long set of rembetiko, or as Metaxas put it, “Greek blues,” the haunting Middle Eastern-flavored, mostly minor-key songs from the underground resistance against the dictatorship of the 1930s and 40s, which was the stuff that resonated most intensely with the crowd. Since this was a public park, they didn’t bring along the ouzo that they share with the crowd at rock clubs. But the music was no less intense, and drew a similarly ecstatic reaction from the crowd. Along with the bouzoukis of Metaxas and Nick Mandoukos, the ubiquitously brilliant Susan Mitchell played violin alongside equally ubiquitous and brilliant acoustic guitarist Steve Antonakos (who didn’t take any of his famous solos), plus Ken Forrest on upright bass and Spiros Edgos on drums.

It was kind of funny how although a lot of the music had an American rock influence, the songs that rocked the hardest were the most indelibly Greek-flavored ones. They opened with a swaying, minor-key anthem with a gypsy-rock feel, Mitchell’s violin textures stark beneath the spiky, richly intertwined harmonies of the two bouzoukis. She took the first of several shivery microtonal solos on the second one after one by Metaxas, over a stately, almost martial groove; then they segued into a tangoish number with hauntingly gorgeous Arabic-tinged modes. A lively, sprightly Macedonian-style dance; a bubbly, upbeat tune with the bouzoukis leapfrogging the highest frets and what sounded like a warier, more angst-driven version of the same song followed.

Mitchell gave a psychedelic folk number from the 60s a chamber-pop feel with layers of lush atmospherics as the bouzoukis traded rapidfire licks. Like another song later in the set, it could have been a cumbia if they’d slowed it down a little: despite being from the other side of the globe, it sounded a lot like the Peruvian surf rock of Chicha Libre or Los Destellos. They slowed it down with a swaying Mediterranean ballad, then played a gypsy cimbalom tune on the bouzoukis and brought back the cumbia-ish bounce. Then they went into the rembetiko, which is when the dancing, and several spontaneous singalongs and clapalongs emerged throughout the crowd. Mataxas opened the first tune with a long, ominous solo taqsim, the rest of the band following him into the shadows, where they stayed for most of the rest of the evening. Suspenseful Arabic scales pulsed and then soared over rhythms that varied from slinky to martial to defiantly exuberant. One was a dead ringer for the French Revolutionary anthem Les Partisans; the single best song of the night was the next-to-last one, a furtive, chillingly apprehensive theme that paired off Mitchell’s violin against a plaintive thicket of Middle Eastern melody ringing and clanking from the strings of the bouzoukis. Magges have a brand-new album out simply titled 12 Tragouthia [12 Songs]; watch this space for upcoming NYC dates, whether indoors or out. And fans of Italian folk music can check out the weekly Wednesday 7 PM series of concerts here that continue through August 29.