New York Music Daily

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Tag: symphonic rock

Epic Bustle and Thump and Entertainment From the Uncategorizably Fun NYChillharmonic at Joe’s Pub

Was it worth leaving this year’s Charlie Parker Festival early to catch the NYChillharmonic last night at Joe’s Pub? Absolutely. Who knows, maybe someday singer/keyboardist Sara McDonald’s lavish eighteen-piece big band will play the festival – although the lineup that day will have to be a lot more forward-looking than it was yesterday evening.

McDonald’s music is easy to trace back to the wildly syncopated early 70s art-rock of bands like Genesis, although her compositions also draw on classical music, big band jazz, Radiohead and lately, classic soul music and even disco. Huddled together on the cabaret-sized stage, the mighty group were tight as a drum throughout a pummeling, nonstop performance heavy on the beat.

The staggered, staccato pulse of the opening number set the tone and was the most evocative of 70s psychedelia. Like the rest of the songs on the bill, it was pretty much through-composed, reaching a white-knuckle intensity with a series of rhythmic shrieks toward the end. McDonald typically finds more surprising places to take an audience – and her bandmates – than simply coming back to land on a verse or a chorus. Often but not always, the band would bring starkly moody intros full circle to close a tune, whether voice and keys, voice and guitar, or even voice and tuba.

With a vocal delivery that came across as more chirpy and biting than it’s been in recent months, McDonald sang resonantly while spiraling through tightly wound arpeggios on a mini-synth. Then she’d spin and conduct the ensemble, then return to the mic and keys, and made it look easy.

She explained that she’d written the night’s second number, Living Room, after quitting her shitty dayjob. Maybe some organization like Chamber Music America can step in and help her stay away from shitty dayjobs so she can concentrate on what she does best.

That particular number began as a restlessly propulsive soul anthem bulked up to orchestral proportions, with unexpectedly hushed, halfspeed interludes and a similarly sepulcutral outro, flitting out on the wings of the group’s string section. With the next tune, Ambedo, the band mashed up classic 70s disco and 50s Mingus urban noir bustle, punctuated by a series of almost vexing interruptions and a wry, woozy, Bernie Worrell-style bass synth solo.

The night’s darkest and most bracing song, Wicker – which McDonald dedicated to “Ugly patio furniture everywhere” – had looming, ominous chromatics and 21st century Balkan jazz allusions, along with a deliciously jagged guitar solo and more P-Funk keyboard buffoonery. Zephyr has been considerably beefed up since the last time the group played the piece here, its chattering, uneasy intro more of a contrast with its relentlessly syncopated upward drive. It was the closest thing to orchestral Radiohead on the bill.

Easy Comes the Ghost began with circus-rock piano phantasmagoria, shifting through a polyrhythmic maze to a determined disco strut that ended sudden and cold. The group closed the show with another mashup of Radiohead, dancefloor thud and Darcy James Argue-style big band minimalism. Like Missy Mazzoli, McDonald manages to write torrential melodies without cluttering them.

Time was short, so there were no band intros. It would have been fun to have been able to stick around for brass quartet the Westerlies with crooner Theo Bleckmann, but sometimes life takes you elsewhere…humming riffs from this shapeshifting crew which this time included Alden Helmuth on alto sax, Jasper Dutz and Jared Yee on tenor, Drew Vanderwinckel on baritone, Ben Seacrist and Michael Sarian on trumpets, Nick Grinder and Nathan Wood on trombones, Jennifer Wharton on tuba, Kiho Yutaka and Dorothy Kim on violin, Will Marshall on viola, Sasha Ono on cello, Eitan Kenner on electric piano, Steven Rogers on guitar, Adam Neely on bass and Dani Danor on drums.

A Deviously Dark New Masterpiece and a Joe’s Pub Show From Creepy Duo Charming Disaster

Charming Disaster aren’t just the creepiest guy/girl harmony duo in folk noir. They’re also a songwriting superduo. Since the late zeros, guitarist Jeff Morris has led mighty noir mambo/circus rock band Kotorino. When singer/ukulele player Ellia Bisker – leader of majestic existentialist soul band Sweet Soubrette – joined his group, that springboarded a series of collaborations that led to the duo’s debut collection of original murder ballads. Since then, they’ve become a touring powerhouse and have expanded their sound to include dark and death-obsessed narratives set to increasingly and expertly diverse musical backdrops. Their latest album Spells and Rituals is streaming at Bandcamp. They’re playing Joe’s Pub on August 22 at 9 PM; cover is $15.

They open the record with Blacksnake, a slinky clave tune about a pair of lovers who’ve gotten in too deep for their own good. All this bliss just might kill them: “Is it just hallucination or the ergot on the rye?” they ask as what may be an apocalypse looms on the horizon. There’s also a funny fourth wall-breaking reference to percussion equipment; see the band live and you’ll get it.

Although the duo do an impressive job playing multiple instruments onstage to bulk up their sound, there’s a full band on the album. Wishing Well, a Merseybeat-tinged janglerock tune has Don Godwin doing double duty on bass and drums along with the hanclaps to propel its allusively suicidal narrative. Baba Yaga, a shout out to the popular witch from Russian mythology, has a scampering horror surf-tinged groove; there’s no Moussourgsky quote, although that’s the kind of thing they’d slip in when playing it live.

Devil May Care, with its wry Biblical allusions and Tex-Mex tinges, is a hoot. “You’ve got a right to get in trouble,’ is the refrain. Llithe strings add to the distant menace , alongside Jessie Kilguss’ droning harmonium. Bisker’s sultry tones enhance the sinister ambience over Morris’ gorgeously bittersweet guitar jangle in Blue Bottle Blues, a swinging number about poisoning.

Heart of Brass is a throwback to Kotorino’s adventures in sardonic steampunk storytelling, Morris and Bisker in counterpoint over tinkling glass bells and a hypnotic sway. From there they blend Beatles and classic 60s country balladry in the slightly more lighthearted, metaphorically loaded cross-country narrative Keep Moving.

Menacing circus-rock piano (that’s either Morris or Bisker; both play keys on the album) and strings (Heather Cole on violin and Patricia Santos on cello) build operatic drama in Belladonna. “The ambulance sang my name more times than once,” Morris and Bisker harmonize in Fire Eater, a broodingly orchestrated, Balkan brass-tinged parable about the perils of thrill-seeking. They stomp their way through the catchy Laurel Canyon psychedelia of the monstrously funny Be My Bride of Frankenstein and close the album with the cynical, scampering garage rock spoof Soft Apocalypse. Dark music has seldom been this much fun – and these two put on a hell of a show.

Catchy, Edgy, Shapeshifting Art-Rock and a West Village Show from Eclectic Violinist Dina Maccabee

Dina Maccabee is one of the most versatile and interesting violinists and violists around. She’s a founding member of the Real Vocal String Quartet, and an important part of creepy Twin Peaks cover band the Red Room Orchestra. She’s also a bandleader in her own right and has a glistening, deliciously textured new art-rock album, The Sharpening Machine streaming at Sundcloud. Her next New York gig is on a bill she fits right in with, this August 17 at 3:30 PM as part of Luisa Muhr’s monthly Women Between Arts show – New York’s only multidisciplinary series focusing exclusively on woman performers – at the Glass Box Theatre at the New School, 55 W 13th St. Other artists on this highly improvisational program include dancer Azumi Oe with drummer Carlo Costa and bassist Sean Ali, plus dancer Oxana Chi with performance artist Layla Zami and pianist Mara Rosenbloom. It’s not clear who’s playing when, but everyone is worth seeing. Cover is $20, and be aware that the series has a policy that no one is turned away for lack of funds.

Maccabee’s tunesmithing on the new album is playful and catchy yet trippy and opaque. Echo effects bounce back and forth throughout the briskly bouncy title track, which opens the record. Maccabee runs her pizzicato textures and gentle wafts of sound through a kaleidoscope of effects alongside Brett Farkas’ spare, watery guitar, with hints of both the Cocteau Twins and Pink Floyd.

Maccabee’s crystalline vocals recall Aimee Mann in Could You Be Right, a verdantly orchestrated, surrealistically marching anthem in a Wye Oak vein. Sad Sad Sad Sad Sad Song is a rippling bluegrass banjo tune as ELO might do it – with a nifty fiddle solo and a resolute woman out front. Hey You – an original, not the Pink Floyd “classic rock” radio staple – brings to mind psychedelic pop icon Jenifer Jackson in a pensive, atmospheric moment: “My knowledge is written on my nails and my knuckles, if you refuse to see,” Maccabee’s narrator advises.

Tall Tall Trees is an unselfconsciously gorgeous late Beatlesque anthem set in a theatre where the show never starts; Roger Reidbauer contribufes a deliciously spiraling, dipping guitar solo.

An uneasily charming glockenspiel solo opens Even When the Stars Align, Maccabee’s vocals dancing over a slowly swaying, artfully spare web of textures. “I’m still a million miles away,” she laments. Her acoustic guitar lingers alongside Reidbauer’s spare lines amid the shimmer of the moody, slowly waltzing Green Again, which could be a great lost track from Pink Floyd’s Obscured by Clouds.

Little Bite has a suspiciously sardonic, quasi-martial sway powered by Sylvain Carton’s baritone sax : it’s sort of the missing link between Bjork and Hungry March Band. But I Do is a ruefully swinging oldtimey country tune. The final cut is It Doesn’t Have to Be Okay, a brooding trip-hop tune with big accordion-like swells. The level of detail and creativity on this record is amazing: there are too many neat touches to enumerate here. You’ll see this on the best albums of the year page here in December.

Pioneering Cello Rocker Serena Jost Brings Her Rapturous, Intimate Sonics to a Similarly Intimate Brooklyn Space

“My cello wants to go up in the ceiling,” Serena Jost observed at one of this year’s most rapturously intimate New York shows: in the middle of the day, in the cozy, vintage tin-plated Chinatown studio at Montez Press Radio a couple of days before Memorial Day weekend. As she did with her meticulously playful solo album Up to the Sky, Jost will typically size up the sonics of a room and then make them part of the performance. Just as she took advantage of the rich natural reverb at St. Peter’s Church in Chelsea when she recorded the album – live – she felt the highs bouncing off the studio’s metal, and the walls, and ran with it…calmly, and gently, with respect to any ghosts she might be coaxing out of the woodwork with her harmonics and overtones. She’s playing a slightly less intimate space, Freddy’s, at 7 PM on August 10 on a killer triplebill with haunting, fearsomely powerful soul belter and noir Americana songstress Karen Dahlstrom and the anthemic, politically fearless, vintage Springsteenian Tru Mongrel Hearts’ frontman Pete Cenedella

As a founding member of Rasputina, Jost is a pioneer of cello rock, but her own writing and improvisation defy categorization. If there was any common thread between the songs in this particular set – drawn mostly from her solo record – it was minimalism. No wasted notes, no gestures that weren’t meaningful, spiced with subtle echoes and sepulchral wisps of sound.

She opened with It’s a Delight, her soul-infused vocals soaring over its distantly Indian-tinged variations on a hypnotic octave riff. She got the harmonics keening with an especially emphatic take of the catchy Window; she’d revisit that trope with even more sonic surrealism later, with the contrasting rhythmic plucks and hazy atmospherics of Hallway.

Her lone cover was a more polished but understately chilling take on the brilliant/obscure Happiness, by Molly Drake (Nick’s mom): “Happiness is gone without a warning, jack-o-lantern in the night.”

Going back to the originals, Jost dug in hard with the staccato chords of Silver Star, an allusively seductive but ultimately just as wary and unresolved tableau. She also made up what was essentially a catchy, optimistic, singalong stadium-rock anthem, on the spot, and eventually closed with The Cut, a swaying, Britfolk-tinged tune that strongly evoked Linda Thompson, both vocally and thematically

The performance and interview afterward have been archived: click the archive link at Montez Press Radio and scroll down for a very acerbic, insightful look at where Jost is at these days: more attuned to psychedelia and spontaneity than ever, both as a solo artists and a bandleader.

Darkly Eclectic Composer Jay Vilnai Releases His Most Haunting Album

Guitarist Jay Vilnai is one of Brooklyn’s most individualistic, consistently interesting composers. Over the years, he’s led a fiery Romany-rock band, Jay Vilnai’s Vampire Suit and made acerbic chamber music out of Shakespearean poetry. He’s also the lead guitarist in another wild, popular Slavic string band, Romashka. His latest album, Thorns All Over – a collection of new murder ballads with text by poet Rachel Abramowitz, streaming at Bandcamp – is one of his best projects so far. In fact, it could be the most lurid, Lynchian indie classical album ever made. Vilnai is playing the album release show at Arete Gallery in Greenpoint on June 6 at 7 PM, leading a trio with violinist Skye Steele and singer Augusta Caso. Cover is $15.

The allbum’s Pinter-esque plotline follows a series of jump cuts. Likewise, the rhythms shift almost incessantly, enhancing a mood of perpetual unease. Vilnai layers eerily looping piano, desolately glimering tremolo guitar and evil, twinkling vibraphone up to a savage crescendo in the album’s opening track, The Lake: it’s all the more haunting for how quietly and offhandedly the narrator relates what happens along the shore that night.

Vilnai builds a skronky maze of counterpoint in tandem with Reuben Radding’s bass in A Woman or a Gun, a surreal mashup of what could be Ted Hearne indie opera, John Zorn noir soundtrack tableau and Angelo Badalamenti taking a stab at beatnik jazz.

“I took her to the dark forest to see if she would light the way,”Vilnai intones over gloomy pools of piano, as the band make their way into The Forest. A chamber ensemble of Skye Steele on violin, Oscar Noriega on clarinet, Ben Holmes on trumpet, Katie Scheele on English horn and David Wechsler on alto flute build a gently fluttering tableau, a sarcastic contrast with the story’s ugly foreshadowing.

A ghostly choir – Quince Marcum, Laura Brenneman and Jean Rohe – join in an echoing vortex behind Vilnai’s stately angst in Heartbreak. He layers grim low-register guitar, coldly starlit piano and enveloping atmospherics in the title track, up to a squirrelly mathrock crescendo amd slowly back down: this love triangle turns out to be a lot stranger than expected.

The album’s macabre final diptych is The Night We Met: Noriega’s moody clarinet rises over creepy, lingering belltones, Vilnai’s minimalist guitar lurking in the background. It concludes as a glacially waltzing dirge. Count this as one of this year’s most haunting and strangest records: you’ll see it on the best albums of 2019 page here in December.

A Rare City Park Show and a Mighty, Harrowing New Suite From Stephanie Chou

For the last couple of years, Barnard College has staged an amazingly eclectic, entertaining annual concert under the trees in the crabapple grove in Riverside Park just north of 91st Street. This years’s festival is this Satruday night, May 18, starting at 5 PM with one of New York’s most socially relevant and ambitious jazz talents, alto saxophonist/singer Stephanie Chou. This time out she’ll be leading a trio with pianist Jason Yeager and drummer Ronen Itzik Other acts on the bill include the Bacchantae, Barnard College’s all-female a cappella group, ferociously dynamic, tuneful, female-fronted power trio Castle Black, and the Educadorian-flavored Luz Pinos Band

Chou’s latest larger-scale project is titled Comfort Girl. It’s a harrowing, phanstasmagorical song cycle based on the terrors faced by the over two hundred thousand women who were forced into sexual slavery during the Japanese occupation of China during World War II. Some of those women were raped thousands of times. To add insult to injury, when those who survived were able to return home after the Japanese retreat, many of them were shunned. Chou debuted it at Joe’s Pub at the end of March. What was most striking about the show was not only Chou’s ability to shift between musical styles, but her prowess as a lyricist.

A flurry from Kenny Wollesen’s drums signaled the intro to the jaunty march Manchurian Girl, a late 30s Chinese pop hit. The lyrics are innocuous: a young woman waiting for her boo to return home so she can tie the knot. Chou sang it with more than a hint of foreshadowing, the music rising to a shivery tightness, Andy Lin’s vibrato-tinged violin over his sister Kelly Lin’s emphatic piano.

Narrator Peregrine Heard continued the story; girl meets boy and everything seems rosy in the countryside, echoed by a sax-violin duet that began coyly and then took on a swirling, triumphantly pulsing tone which turned wary and enigmatic as the two diverged harmonically.

The violinist switched to the even more shivery, plaintive-toned erhu fiddle for a Chinese parlor-pop ballad of sorts, Forever I Will Sing Your Song, crooner Orville Mendoza’s anticipatory drama contasting with Chou’s more demure delivery. The music grew suddenly chaotic as Japanese soldiers crushed the wedding ceremony, knocking out the groom and tearing his bride away.

Surrealistic piano glimmer over Wollesen’s noir percussion ambience supplied the backdrop for Chou’s wounded vocals in Shattered. Mendoze sang the pretty straight-up, determined piano rock ballad after that, the groom determined to get his beloved back. Meanwhile, she’s being paraded through one of the Japanese rape camps – the euphemistically named “Jade Star Hotel” – along with a group of captives. The piece’s simple military chorus was as chilling as any moment through the show, as was the haunting, phamtasmagorical waltz after that; “No name,, no hope: No life”

The young woman was thrown into a a cell, got a new Japanese name, and with a portentous crescendo and diabolical flickers from the violin, the music became a horror film score, It would have been historically accurate for the music to remain a morass of atonalities and cruel slashes punctuated by brief, mournful stillness, but Chou went deeper, with an aptly aching, Chinese-language ballad, her narravor terrified that her husband-to-be will reject her after all she’s had to suffer.

A coldly circling interlude captured the soldiers in line waiting for their turn with the “military provisions,” as the women were called. “We can do whatever we want to do,” Mendoza’s narrator sniffeed. A haunting, Pink Floyd-tinged interlude depicted her fiance giving up his search, miles away; Chou’s heroine remained defiant through a vindictive, venomous English-language anthem.

A spare, bucolic folk song – the kind the women would sing to remind each other of home – was next on the bil, followed by an anxious but undeterred ballad sung by Mendoza. Kelly Lin’s plaintive Debussy-esque crescendos lit up the number after that.

Flourishes from violin and sax underscored the young woman’s determination to beat the odds and survive, via a variation on the earlier, soul-tnnged revenge anthem. Unlike most of her fellow captives, this woman was able to escape, the piano driving a deliciously redemptive theme. And although her future husband realizes at the end that as she makes is back to her old village, “There’s still someone in there,”most of these women were not so lucky. Good news: Chou plans to release the suite as a studio recording.

Lurid, Creepy, Lush String Sounds on Natalia Steinbach’s New WaterLynx Album

Violinist Natalia Steinbach turns into a haunting, carnivalesque one-woman string orchestra on her new WaterLynx ep, streaming at Bandcamp. On one hand, it’s as grand guignol and gothic AF; on the other it’s not cliched either. That’s a fine line, and Steinbach manages to walk it…in black six-inch stilettos, one assumes. The former member of the alternatively lush and assaultive Naked Roots Conducive duo with cellist Valerie Kuehne is playing the album release show at Pine Box Rock Shop on May 16 at 9:30 PM.

Steinbach opens the album with a big, pulsing, angst-fueled ballad, Moonlight in Decay, switching back and forth between a creepy waltz and a more straightforwardly anthemic theme. There’s klezmer and Romany influences in the moody minor-keys; “Having trouble seeing when the lights are in full bloom,” she alludes in her dramatic, colorful soprano.

Steinbach sings Don’t Tempt Me – a setting of an embittered, distraught Evgeny Baratynsky poem – in the original Russian, over a plaintively swaying arrangement akin to what Tschaikovsky would have done with a folk lament. Then she switches gears with the insistent, lyrically torrential, sardonically desperate Breathe in Nothing, her one-woman string section flickering up some delicious chromatics.

The album’s final cut is There Is No Demon, a steady, dancing anthem with an intro like Vivaldi on acid, and gorgeously macabre vocal harmonies on the chorus: it’s the album’s most venomous track. Fans of the dark and dramatic, from the little girls who crushed on Lorde, to the vets who prefer Rasputina and Carol Lipnik, ought to give this often spine-tingling collection a spin.

There Will Be No Intermission: Amanda Palmer’s Big Comeback Album?

Let’s not get into the issue of Amanda Palmer, polarizing figure, naked on the cover of her new album There Will Be No Intermission, streaming at Bandcamp.  At her best, she’s a big-picture person, a withering lyricist, a distinctive and finely nuanced singer, a strong pianist and an equally strong, surprisingly eclectic tunesmith. She also plays ukulele. The core of the band here is Jherek Bischoff on bass, guitars and a bunch of other instruments,  John Congleton on drums and Max Henry on synths 

The album’s opening track is as riveting as Palmer is onstage: whatever you think of her, you cannot deny her prowess as a performer. After a wisp of an intro, her waltzing piano elegantly and eerily introduces the ten-minute epic The Ride. Working neoromantic variations on a carnivalesque riff we all know, she sings intimately, comfortingly…as the planet heats up, the waters rise and

Some are too scared to let go of their children,
And some are too scared now to have them
Suicide, homicide, genocide, man
That’s a fuck ton of sides you can choose from
I want you to think of me sitting and singing beside you
I wish we could meet all the people who got left behind
The ride is so loud it can make you think no one is listening
But isn’t it nice when we all can cry at the same time?

There’s a whole lot more to the song than that, but it’s Roger Waters-class visionary, and it’s the best song released this year so far.

Much as that proves to be an impossible act to follow, Palmer is clearly over the crippling case of writer’s block that plagued her for years. Drowning in the Sound, a surreal mashup of 80s Peter Gabriel, vintage Bowie glamrock and swishy mid-zeros theatreboy pop, has a similarly grim narrative:

Your body is a temple
And the temple is a prison
And the prison’s overcrowded
And the inmates know it’s flooding
And the body politic is getting sicker by the minute
And the media’s not fake
It’s just very inconvenient
Do you ever feel like this should be officially the end?
And that you should be the one to do the ending, but you can’t?
Do you ever feel like everyone is slowly letting go?
Do you ever feel that, that incredibly alone?

The Thing About Things is a uke song with a big dramatic chorus midway through. It’s a story about a lost ring, and how objects serve as surrogates for those we care about (Palmer’s take on that is far more poetic than that description). Machete – a 2016 single – is another good story, shifting between catchy new wave disco and atmospheric, Floydian art-rock. The title is a loaded metaphor.

In Voicemail for Jill, a tender piano ballad, Palmer offers to throw “the best abortion shower” for a Boston friend who numbers among the 33% of American women who’ve had one. And hang with A Mother’s Confession (another older tune) for all ten minutes plus, even though it’s mawkish and way too long, because the punchline is killer – and it’s the second time Palmer, mother of two, delivers it.

Look Mummy No Hands is the album’s most musically creepy track, even more phantasmagorical than the starker live version released on Palmer’s 2013 triple live album with her husband Neil Gaiman. The album ends with the cynical, ornate, Alan Parsons Project-style elegy Death Thing. There’s other material here, but considering how relevant and masterfully crafted the crux of the album is, let’s leave the haters on Facebook and Instagram where they belong. Even with all the filler, it’s good to see an important voice still speaking truth to power. Nice to see you still making records, Amanda Palmer.

A Potently Relevant Pancho Villa-Themed Song Cycle at the Prototype Festival

Can you imagine Pancho Villa in Brooklyn in 2019? Considering how central the democratization of land was to his platform, it’s not hard to figure how the archetypal Mexican revolutionary would respond to the mass displacement of so many longtime residents to make room for “luxury condo” speculator property that no one will ever inhabit.

Last night at Bric Arts, keyboardist/composer Graham Reynolds led an energetic, supremely talented Austin band through what he termed a “multi-media theatrical concert,” exploring Villa’s life and myth via dark, ornate, Mexican-flavored rock interspersed with stormy, immersively cinematic interludes. Considering that so much of the action in the songs takes place on the US-Mexican border, there’s crushing irony in that the premiere took place in Marfa, Texas the day before the fateful 2016 election.

And there’s no small irony that the New York premiere – part of this year’s Prototype Festival – was staged in Brooklyn, less than a block from the property that corrupt former Borough President Marty Markowitz and his cronies conspired to turn over to to a out-of-state developer to sell at a ridiculous profit.

Reynolds’ music draws equally on ornate 70s rock like Pink Floyd and the Alan Parsons Project as much as mariachi, rancheras and boleros. Beyond the songs’ sheer catchiness and potent contemporary relevance, what’s best about this nonlinear suite of sorts is the vocals of tenor Paul Sanchez and mezzo-soprano Liz Cass. Most of the lyrics – a team effort by Mexico City-based collective Lagartijas Tiradas Al Sol, drawing deeply on history and many quotes from Villa himself –  are in Spanish But each singer articulates them with a resolute determination to drive them home. No gratuitous, over-the-top arioso diva BS here: even a non-native speaker can easily follow along. As a bonus, there are English supertitles for the Spanish and Spanish supertitles for the occasional English interlude. The translations, both ways, are excellent.

Towering angst, hope against hope and imminent doom interchange over an elegantly dynamic backdrop. Reynolds leads the band from behind the keyboard, shifting between neoromantic piano, gothic organ and smoky electronic battlefield swaths. Bassist Utah Hamrick (who also doubled on tuba) took the single most breathtaking solo of the night, channeling lurid Lynchian noir. Violinist Alexis Buffum got centerstage in the most Tex-Mex flavored numbers, cellist Henna Chou bolstering the lows in tandem with the eclectically textured drumwork of Grupo Fantasma’s Jeremy Bruch. Mexican heavy psych titan Adrian Quesada played guitar, finally getting to cut loose with some toothsome metal on his Telecaster after many uneasily jangly southwestern gothic moments.

Was Villa a man of the people, a careless womanizer, an avenger archetype getting even for hundreds of years of conquistador evil…or a smalltime bandito hell-bent on the bigtime? At the very end, Cass reveals that all of the above and more may be only a small part of a very complex character who’s no less controversial almost a hundred years later. As this version of the story goes, Villa’s almost stubborn inability to read people translated to a series of increasingly poor alliances that eventually cost him his life. 

The title of the suite – Pancho Villa From a Safe Distance – is sarcastic to the extreme. It’s reference to how the El Paso Hotel Del Norte advertised its comfortable rooftop picnic area as the best vantage point in town for watching the carnage going down across the river. The concluding performance is tonight at 7:30; if you are a fan of history or artsy, ornate 70s rock, you would be remiss to miss it.

An Intimate Lower East Side Gig by Haunting Art-Rock Songwriter Joanna Wallfisch

There are two kinds of road songs. The more common ones celebrate freedom, the other celebrate escape. The second track on singer/multi-instrumentalist Joanna Wallfisch’s most recent album Blood & Bone – streaming at Bandcamp – is the other kind. It’s a chillingly propulsive narrative inspired by her 2016 California tour, which she made by bike.

I change my background story
Every time somebody asks
I have worn so many masks…
Winding down the windows
Letting in in the breeze
Breathing in the ashes
Of burning redwood trees
Time moves parallel to motion
It’s a traveler’s disease
We are all escapees

Wallfisch is playing the small room at the Rockwood on Jan 4 at 9 PM, an intimate opportunity to get to know her often slashingly lyrical, individualistic mix of majestic orchestrated rock, elegant parlor pop and jazz.

Jess Elder’s tinkling piano mingles with Wallfisch’s delicate uke and Kenneth Salters’ atmospheric cymbal washes in the album’s optimistic opening ballad, The Ship. Over swooshy organ and surreal electric piano, Wallfisch unleashes years’ worth of pent-up venom in The Shadow of Your Ghost, one of the alltime great kiss-off anthems. “You counted every moment that we spent, like a poor man counts each miserable cent,” she sings with a misty regret – and it only gets better from there. Elder’s titanic organ solo is one of the album’s high points.

The lush sweep of the towering seduction anthem Dandelions, awash in starry keyboard textures, is vastly more optimistic. The brooding counterpoint of the Solar String Quartet float above Elder’s circular, minimalist piano riffs in Anymore, a terse, bitter breakup ballad. The album’s catchiest song, capped off by an ornately gritty glamrock guitar solo by Elias Meister, is Lullaby Girl, which could be peak-era mid-70s ELO. Wallfisch’s allusively imagistic portrait of an unnamed musician’s grimly elusive search for some kind of inner peace packs a wallop.

‘In Runaway Child, Wallfisch builds a coyly detailed, Tamara Hey-esque tale of breaking free,over the boleroish pulse of Pablo Menares’ bass and Elder’s calypsonian toy piano. The group follow the starry, wistful piano-and-cello ballad Summer Solstice with Choices, a chromatically bristling, cabaret-tinged 6/8 anthem. Imagine Linda Thompson fronting Procol Harum: “The witching hour closes in fast…by dancing in circles, we’ll end up in flames.”

The hushed Solitude in a Song – Wallfisch sharing some surprising insights into how she writes – is the album’s most minimalist track. She goes back to cabaret-rock with The Truth, an anxious, brief mellotron-and-piano number. The album’s most traditional, commercial number is Bo Ba Bo; Wallfisch brings it full circle with the title track, Blood and Bone, a dancing, waltzing, Mozartean parlor pop number. Wallfisch deserves to be vastly better known than she is.