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Golden Fest 2019: Still New York’s Wildest Concert Weekend After More Than 30 Years

The chandeliers at the gilded age wedding mansion were shaking. People were bodysurfing. As usual, the lines to all-you-can-eat buffet were insane. A lot of famliies brought their kids. How lucky those gradeschoolers were to be able to indulge their wildest inner animals at an evening of sounds that were “Alternately lyrical, mournful, ecstatic and spooky, that used to be the soundtrack of everyday life back in the day,” as one band playing Golden Fest last night put it.

Macedonian quartet Niva (reviewed here at the 2017 edition of the annual weekend festival of Balkan and Balkan-adjacent music) get credit for that description, which pretty much speaks for the other seventy or so bands on the bill. Every January, many of the best groups from across the US and around the world bring everything from Serbian brass music to Ukrainian choral repertoire, Romany dances and Black Sea songs to Grand Prospect Hall in south Park Slope.

How does last night’s show compare with previous festivals? Same old. The big ballroom was a human kaleidoscope of linedancers, but people were cutting a rug in the somewhat smaller rooms too. The buffet was delicious (that garlicky skordalia – yum) and there were plenty of opportunities to grab a plate after the big lines had finally subsided. And the music was sublime.

That there would still be an audience in New York in 2019 large enough to fill a space the size of the Mercury Lounge to see multi-instrumentalist Amir Vahab play his haunting Iranian sufi songs goes against conventional thinking. But it’s further proof that if you give people good music, they’ll come out.

Likewise, watching the crowd converge on the stage and then the center of the ballroom like a giant accordion during whirlwind clarinetist Michael Winograd’s dynamically sizzling romp through a series of klezmer dances was viscerally breathtaking.

The other bands’ tightness and intensity were pretty much unrelenting, on the kind of daunting level that any musician would want to reach when playing to an audience full of icons from the worlds of microtones, minor keys and weird time signatures. Multi-reedman Greg Squared and trumpeter Ben Syversen matched meticulous articulation to raw redline power throughout Raya Brass Band’s torrentially bouncy attack – that’s where the bodysurfing started. Three flights up, a little earlier in the evening, the larger, more undulating Veveritse Brass Band played what also could have been the tightest set of their career – and they’ve been doing this for the better part of ten years as well.

The accordionist in the night’s first band, Cocek Nation – a motley assemblage of up-and-coming student musicians – took a solo that could have been Ray Manzarek. That’s cool in itself – what’s even cooler is that there are  kids in the group who haven’t yet made it to middle school who are expected to improvise, schooled by some of the best in the business.

Upstairs in the Mercury-sized room, singer Eva Salina parsed the most poignant corners of a tantalizingly brief set of reinvented Romany ballads and dance tunes, her longtime accordionist Peter Stan exchanging cascades and flitting riffs with her. It could well have been the night’s most conversational performance. No matter how many times you see so many of these bands, they never play anything exactly the same way.

Armenian jazz sage Souren Baronian may be best known for deep soul and long, mesmerizing solos, but this time out he was hilarious. After a characteristically serpentine, poignant soprano sax number, he picked up his duduk, then bubbled and burbled through a wry series of variations that just would not stop. These days more than ever, everybody wants to play with him: oudist Adam Good eventually relinquished his seat to another first-rate Middle Eastern lutenist. 

Slavic Soul Party’s weekly Tuesday residency at Barbes is a Brooklyn institution, and it gets loud there. As much as fun as those shows have been over the years, they don’t compare with last night’s constantly morphing, deviously funk-tinged, explosive performance in the big ballroom where they could really play to the rafters. A floor below, Szikra channeled otherworldly, rather stately centuries-old Hungarian themes, maxing out the moody lows with both cello and gardon (a percussion instrument that looks like a cello but functions more like a muted bass drum).

Back in the ballroom, Eva Salina took a rockstar turn on the mic front of Balkan organ band Choban Elektrik, a sleekly swaying presence: they were in more trad mode than usual, compared to their usual epically psychedelic sound. Saxophonist Ariane Morin of Amerike Klezmer Brass stunned the crowd with her poignant microtones, especially in the quartet’s opening number, over the pulse of accordionist  Ilya Shneyveys. And the bodysurfing reached critical mass with the night’s gargantuan headliners, What Cheer? Brigade. That the Providence street band were able to be so searingly tight as balloons bounced off their trumpets and tubas and the crowd around them squeezed closer and closer speaks to their fearlessness as much as their chops.

Watching from a comfortable balcony seat, nibbling on a choice morsel of salty kashkaval cheese, having switched by now from whiskey to coffee, it was impossible to think of a better way to end the best concert of 2019.

Except maybe by being down on the floor with the band. See you at Golden Fest 2020.

For those who want to brave tonight’s sinking temperatures, there’s a post Golden Fest Balkan blowout at the Jalopy starting at 6:30 with Cocek Nation followed at 7 by dynamic, subtle all-female klezmer band Tsibele, at 8 by the Romany-flavoed Sarma Brass Band and at 8 by the ferocious Novi Hitovi Brass Band, Cover is $10, there’ll be “nobody turned away,”and all  proceeds will benefit the Cocek Nation’s trip to the Balkans later this year. 

A Fourth of July Show Worth Celebrating at Barbes

This was not a year to celebrate the Fourth of July with any kind of American pageantry. There were a few people in the crowd at Barbes who’d deliberately decided to opt out of visual fireworks for musical ones, but otherwise there was no political subtext to a wildly energetic triplebill of New Orleans swing and Balkan brass sounds that ran the gamut from the most trad to the craziest avant garde.

Saxophonist Aurora Nealand’s Royal Roses had played Central Park over the weekend with a couple of popular New York acts: from this performance, putting them first on that bill must have raised the bar impossibly high. Much as the hurricane and the forced exodus  out afterward did a number on the Crescent City’s indigenous jazz population – developers have been scheming to depopulate New Orleans’ working-class neighborhoods for years – it’s still a hotbed for jazz, if a lot less creole than it used to be. The Royal Roses represented that tradition and schooled us all, through two deliriously swinging sets.

Barbes tends to draw a lot of bands who are used to much bigger venues, and this group was no exception: it was impossible to get into the music room until very late in the second set. A lot of what they played could be called dixieland noir. There was volley after volley of soprano sax/trombone interplay and counterpoint, but it was dark and edgy, and tight beyond belief. Piano and guitar made spiky appearances out in front on a handful of numbers, and it wasn’t all just lickety-split dance music, either. As the band built steam in the second set, there were also a handful of clenched-teeth massed climbs up the scale, part Anthony Braxton largescale improvisation and part horror film soundtrack. This contrasted with Nealand’s close-to-the-vest charm on the mic: as much as she’s a pyrotechnic reed player, she sings with a lot of nuance.

Slavic Soul Party, who’ve mashed up Balkan brass music with everything from hip-hop to Ellington jazz suites over the years, weren’t available for their usual Tuesday night 9 PM residency, but there were members in the house. And it was awfully cool to be able to catch a rare appearance by Veveritse Brass Band. “I saw them on some random night at the Jalopy, years ago, and they blew me away,” enthused a brunette beauty at the bar.

She wasn’t kidding. An eight-piece version of the band shook off the rust and a rocky start to bring back fond memories of a Serbia of the mind circa 2009 or thereabouts, when the band was a regular draw on the Barbes/Jalopy circuit. Tricky tempos? Minor keys? Chromatics and microtones to rival seasoned Serbian or Egyptian brass players? Check, check, check. Alto saxophonist Jessica Lurie whirled in, unpacked her horn and fired off the most deliciously slithery solo of the night, not missing a beat. Finally, de facto bandleader and baritone horn player Quince Marcum took a similarly valve-twisting microtonal solo of his own.

The night came full circle with an enveloping, otherworldly and eventually feral set by the Mountain Lions, billed originally as the duo of baritone saxophonist Peter Hess and standup drummer Matt Moran. Maybe this was planned, maybe not, but it ended up with Hess playing achingly intense, minutely fluctuating melody over a slow, funereal beat, several horns massed behind him and playing a drone. The result was as psychedelic as anything played on any stage in New York this year – and a pretty spectacular display of circular breathing and extended technique. Then the group loosened up, Raya Brass Band’s Greg Squared lit into one of his supersonically precise, pyrotechnic solos and the band got their feet planted back in Sarajevo or Guca or somewhere like that, in the here and now.

Word on the street is that Slavic Soul Party will have everybody back in town by August for their Tuesday night Barbes residency. In the meantime, this month, their absence opens up the late slot for a lot of great music- check the Barbes calendar or just stop by the bar if you’re in the hood. This coming Tuesday, July 11 at 7 PM lit-rock collective the Bushwick Book Club open the night at 7, playing songs inspired by Steve Martin.

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 30 Best New York Concerts of 2012

Of all the end-of-the-year lists here, this is the most fun to put together. It’s the most individual – everybody’s got a different one.  Last year’s list had 26 shows; this year’s was impossible to whittle down to less than 30. What was frustrating was looking back and realizing how many other great shows there were. Erica Smith, Rebecca Turner, Love Camp 7 and Pinataland all on the same bill at the Parkside? The club didn’t list it on their calendar. Neil Young in Central Park? Completely spaced out on that one. Pierre de Gaillande’s Georges Brassens translation project, Les Chauds Lapins and Raya Brass Band at that place in Tribeca in January? That night conflicted with Winter Jazzfest. The Brooklyn What at Littlefield, Rachelle Garniez at Barbes, Ward White and Abby Travis at Rock Shop, Spanglish Fly at SOB’s…all of those conflicted with having a life. But it was still a great year, arguably better than 2011.

Of all the multiple-act bills, the longest marathon, and arguably most exhilarating show of the year was Maqamfest on January 6 at Alwan for the Arts downtown with slinky Egyptian film music revivalists Zikrayat, haunting vintage Greek rembetiko oud band Maeandros, torchy Syrian chanteuse Gaida, rustic Iraqi classicists Safaafir, deviously intense Palestinian buzuq funk band Shusmo and then a crazy Middle Eastern jam with the brilliant Alwan All-Stars. Maqamfest 2013 promises to be just as good.

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

Walter Ego at Otto’s, 1/28/12 – the witty, brilliantly lyrical multi- instrumentalist/songwriter, minus his usual theatrical shtick, instead running through one clever, pun-infused, catchy song after another.

Eva Salina at the Ukrainian National Home, 3/31/12 – this was the debut performance of brilliant Balkan chanteuse Eva Salina Primack’s new band with Frank London on trumpet and Patrick Farrell on accordion. She swayed, lost in the music and sang her heart out in a bunch of different languages over the haunting pulse behind her.

Closing night at Lakeside Lounge, 4/30/12 with co-owner Eric Ambel’s Roscoe Trio, Lenny Kaye from Patti Smith’s band, Mary Lee Kortes, Boo Reiners from Demolition String Band, Charlene McPherson from Spanking Charlene and many others giving the legendary East Village rock venue a mighty sendoff.

Little Annie, Paul Wallfisch and David J at the Delancey, 5/7/12 – the smoky, sureallistically hilarious noir cabaret chanteuse, Botanica’s brilliant keyboardist playing three sets, and the legendary Bauhaus bassist/songwriter/playwright at the top of their brooding noir game.

Ben Von Wildenhaus at Zebulon, 5/14/12 – at one of his final shows before leaving town, the noir guitarist played solo through a loop pedal and turned the club into a set from Twin Peaks.

LJ Murphy & the Accomplices at Otto’s,  6/16/12 – backed by the ferocious piano of Patrick McLellan, Tommy Hochscheid’s classic Stax/Volt guitar attack and a swinging rhythm section, the NYC noir rock legend careened through a politically-charged set of songs from his reportedly phenomenal forthcoming 2013 album.

Black Sea Hotel in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, 6/17/12 – the trio of Willa Roberts, Corinna Snyder and Sarah Small sang their own otherworldly, hypnotic a-cappella arrangements of surreal Bulgarian folk songs from across the centuries, their voices hauntingly echoing in the cavernous space of an old synagogue.

Veveritse Brass Band at Barbes, 6/28/12 – over the absolutely psychedelic, bubbly pulse of the trubas, this ten-piece Balkan jam band burned and roared and turned the club’s back room into a cauldron of menacing chromatics and minor keys.

Kotorino at Joe’s Pub, 6/29/12 – transcending a series of snafus with the sound system, the lush, artsy chamber-steampunk band evoked other countries and other centuries throughout a set that was as jaunty and fun as it was haunting.

Aaron Blount of Knife in the Water with Jack Martin from Dimestore Dance Band at Zirzamin, 7/9/12  – although the two hadn’t rehearsed, Martin evoked the ghost of Django Reinhardt against the reverb cloud swirling from Blount’s guitar amp, through a mix of moody, gloomy southwestern gothic songs.

Magges at Athens Square Park in Astoria, 7/10/12 – the Greek psychedelic rockers played a long show of spiky, often haunting songs spiced with Susan Mitchell’s soaring electric violin and Kyriakos Metaxas’ sizzling electric bouzouki – it seemed that the whole neighborhood stuck around for most of it. Too bad there wasn’t any ouzo.

Neko Case out back of the World Financial Center, 7/12/12 – the stage monitors weren’t working, which messed up opening act Charles Bradley’s set, but Case, Kelly Hogan and the rest of the band didn’t let it phase them, switching up their set list and playing a raw, intense set of noir Americana.

Niyaz at Drom, 7/22/12 – a  long, mesmerizing cd release show by the artsy Canadian-Persian dance/trance ensemble, frontwoman Azam Ali slowly and elegantly raising the energy from suspenseful to ecstatic as it went on.

Dimestore Dance Band at Zirzamin, 7/23/12 – since reviving this group, guitarist Jack Martin has become even more powerful, more offhandedly savage and intense than he was when he was leading them back in the mid-zeros when this witty yet plaintive gypsy/ragtime/jazz band was one of the finest acts in the Tonic scene. This show was a welcome return.

The Secret Trio, Ilhan Ersahin and Selda Bagcan at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, 7/28/12 – the annual “Turkish Woodstock” began with short sets of haunting classical instrumentals, psychedelic jazz and then the American debut of the legendary psychedelic rock firebrand and freedom fighter whose pro-democracy activism landed her in jail at one point.

Bettye LaVette at Madison Square Park, 8/8/12 – the charismatic underground soul legend took songs from acts as diverse as George Jones, Paul McCartney and Sinead O’Connor and made them wrenchingly her own, a portrait of endless struggle followed finally by transcendence.

Bombay Rickey at Barbes, 8/11/12 – jaunty, jangly, surfy , psychedelic Bollywood rock fun, with guitar, accordion and frontwoman Kamala Sankaram’s amazing operatic vocals.

Daniel Kahn & the  Painted Bird at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, 8/12/12 – grim, politically spot-on, lyrically brilliant klezmer-rock songwriting from the Berlin-based bandleader backed by an inspired New York pickup group.

Ulrich Ziegler at Barbes, 8/17/12 – of all the single-band shows, this was the year’s most intense, over an hour of eerie. reverb-driven noir cinematic instrumentals from genius guitarist Stephen Ulrich and his inspired colleague Itamar Ziegler, celebrating the release of the album rated best of 2012 here.

The Byzan-Tones at Zebulon, 8/22/12 – the recently resurrected Greek psychedelic surf rockers traded in the electric oud for Steve Antonakos’ lead guitar, and the result sent the haunting, Middle Eastern-fueled energy through the roof.

J O’Brien and Beninghove’s Hangmen at Zirzamin, 9/10/12 – a fascinatingly lyrical, characteristically witty set, solo on twelve-string guitar, by the former Dog Show frontman followed by New York’s best noir soundtrack jazz band at their most intense and psychedelic.

The Strawbs at B.B. King’s, 9/11/12 – it’s amazing how almost 45 years after the psychedelic/Britfolk/art-rock band began, they still sound strong, their lyrical anthems still resonant even in a stripped-down acoustic trio setting.

Sam Llanas at Zirzamin, 9/11/12 – rushing downtown to catch a solo show by the former BoDeans frontman paid off with a riveting, haunting set of brooding, austerely nocturnal songs, especially when J O’Brien joined him on bass.

Sex Mob at the World Financial Center, 9/27/12 – the downtown jazz legends got the atrium echoing with a hypnotic, absolutely menacing set of classic Nino Rota film themes – and they didn’t even play the Godfather.

Julia Haltigan at 11th St. Bar, 10/2/12 – the eclectic southwestern gothic/Americana/soul siren and songwriter at the top of her torchy, sultry, intense game, backed by a brilliant, jazzy band.

M Shanghai String Band‘s cd release show at the Jalopy, 10/5/12 – an hour of cameos from too many New York Americana luminaries to name, followed by two long sets from the massive oldschool string band, moving energetically from bluegrass, to Appalachian, to sea chanteys, gypsy sounds and Britfolk, sometimes fiery and intense, sometimes hilarious.

Theo Bleckmann backed by ACME, crooning Phil Kline song cycles at BAM, 10/25/12 – this was the premiere of Kline’s lushly enveloping chamber-rock arrangements of his acerbically hilarious Rumsfeld Songs, his eclectic Vietnam-themed Zippo Songs and his brand-new, luridly haunting new Sinatra-inspired cycle, Out Cold.

The Arturo O’Farrill Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra at Symphony Space, 11/2/12 – in the wake of the hurricane, O’Farrill decided to put on a couple of free concerts to lift peoples’ spirits. This was the first and better of the two nights, the brilliant latin big band pianist joined by special guests including Anat Cohen, Sex Mob’s Steven Bernstein, Rafi Malkiel and Larry Harlow, playing long, broodingly intense, towering themes, many of them based on classic Jewish melodies.

Katie Elevitch at Zirzamin, 12/16/12  – goes to show that you can’t really count the year’s best concerts until the year’s almost over. Backed by her fantastic four-piece band, the haunting, intense rock siren improvised lyrics, roared, whispered and seduced the crowd in the plush space with her voice and her achingly soul-inspired songwriting.

Veveritse Plays Titanic Balkan Grooves at Barbes

Thursday night at Barbes, Veveritse Brass Band played a characteristically intense, irresistibly careening show. Like Slavic Soul Party, who have weekly Tuesday residency here when they’re not on the road, Veveritse are a ten-piece outfit. Unlike their funkier, more hip-hop oriented counterparts, Veveritse are more of a jamband, sharing a semi-revolving cast of A-list horn players with other elite East Coast groups including Romashka, Zlatne Uste, Ansambl Mastika, Raya Brass Band, Hungry March Band and country outfit the Woes. This time out they had a frontline of clarinet, alto sax and trumpet sailing over the suspenseful hot-lava bubbling of the horns and trubas, propelled by the rat-tat-tat of the two drummers. It took about twenty minutes before people started to filter in from the bar in front, but once they did, they started to clap along and move their feet: what this band plays is dance music, after all. While these days it’s a stretch to assume that any well-dressed young Brooklyn crowd knows anything more sophisticated than, say, the Alabama Shakes, it’s testament to the universal power of Eastern European music. Who says everybody has to dance in 4/4 time?

A couple of Veveritse’s long, ten-minute-plus jams were pretty straight up rhythmically, but much of the show wasn’t, and that didn’t seem to phase anybody. The most spine-tingling solo of the night came from the clarinetist, who fired off what seemed to be an effortlessly supersonic chain of eerie chromatics. Alto saxophonist Greg Squared (frontman of Ansambl Mastika and Raya Brass Band) blasted through one shivery microtonal blitz after another…and who knew that Patrick Farrell, first-call accordionist for umpteen gypsy bands ,was also a more than competent horn player? Emily Geller took aim with a machine-gun precision from behind her big bubanj drum while snare drummer Luke Schneiders slammed out the occasional evil clash from his cymbals. Matter-of-factly but mysteriously, they made their way out of a cauldron of chromatics to a surprisingly chilly, low-key trumpet solo, a galloping triplet beat that swung back and forth between there and four-on-the-floor, and finally left the gleeful minor-key menace behind in exchange for a more lighthearted, blippy, Greek-flavored tune. Then they returned to the biting gypsy tonalities with a long, warm but wary solo intro from one of truba players, then the twin drums kicked in and they were off on another long vamp, this one with an especially anthemic, cinematic sweep. Then they took a break, something they deserved considering how hard everybody had been working. Which made it easier to make a graceful exit and get to the train in time before everything went haywire.

Because they share members with so many other bands, Veveritse don’t play a ton of shows, although they’ve been doing one at the Jalopy pretty much every month. And tomorrow, July 2, they’re at Littlefield at 9 opening for another excellent party band, Very Be Careful.