New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: Wade Ripka

Quatre Vingt Neuf Reinvent Little Rascals Soundtracks, Hot 20s Jazz and Dixieland at Barbes

When Quatre Vingt Neuf launched into their most recent show last month at Barbes, it was a jazz power play. Bryan Beninghove came up with that term: it means more people onstage than there are in the audience. But by the time the irrepressible quasi oldtimey swing band wrapped up their show around midnight, the room was packed. Quatre Vingt Neuf are last-minute like that.

They played their first gig last year when the venue had a cancellation. Owner Olivier Conan emailed Wade Ripka, who would end up playing tenor banjo in the group, to see if he could pull a pickup band together. Sure, said Ripka, who’s in a bunch of other bands (rembetiko metalheads Greek Judas and retro Russian psych-pop crew the Eastern Blokhedz to name a couple) and has a deep address book. Since Conan lives in France now, all this was done over email.

And unlike most venues, Barbes actually promotes the artists who play there. So when Conan hadn’t heard back from Ripka by around midnight, European time, he sent a final reminder to make sure that the bar would have some kind of live entertainment that night.

Apparently the show was a success. When Ripka asked for another gig for this ensemble, Conan agreed – but insisted on naming the band. He came up with Quatre Vingt Neuf (French for Eighty-nine – a revolutionary year). Since then, they’ve featured as many as seventeen players onstage. Last month’s show featured a relatively small septet.

Quatre Vingt Neuf’s shtick is that they play hot 20s jazz and dixieland with a rock rhythm section, a rarity since when those styles first originated, technology hadn’t been developed to the point where bass or drums could be recorded in a full-band situation. Realistically speaking, Quatre Vingt Neuf hardly qualify as a rock band. At the May gig, drummer Chris Stromquist (who also plays in Greek Judas and Balkan brass band Slavic Soul Party) broke out his bundles and brushes and swung with an unexpectedly subtle flair – it’s a side of him not that many people get to see. The same with bassist Nick Cudahy – who also plays in Greek Judas and the Blokhedz – walking the changes and using horn voicings in a couple of wry solos.

Interestingly, bandleader Ripka stuck to rhythm and didn’t take any solos. But the band played several of his arrangements of Little Rascals theme music, from scampering Keystone Kops miniatures to longer, more coyly crescendoing, cinematic pieces. Even the ballads were upbeat. Soprano saxophonist Jason Candler sang a handful of them, when he wasn’t sending wildfire spirals upward. Trumpeter John Carlson played terse, centered good cop to trombonist Tim Vaughn’s boisterous honks and snorts and extended technique. They’re back at Barbes on June 13 at 10 PM, headlining a great swing twinbill that begins at 8 with plush singer/baritone uke player Daria Grace & the Pre-War Ponies, who excel at oldschool mambos and can also be a lot more boisterous than most retro swing bands.

Greek Judas Headline One of the Year’s Best Twinbills in the East Village

When Greek Judas took the stage at Niagara at a little after eleven a couple of Thursdays ago, everybody in the crowd suddenly had their phones out. Maybe that was because three of the five guys in the band were wearing animal masks. But it’s more likely that nobody in the audience had ever seen a Greek metal band.

And in that space, they were louder than ever. Singer Quince Marcum projects as well as any other frontman in town, but this time he was low in the mix. When the band got their start, guitarist/lapsteel player Wade Ripka and guitarist Adam Good would typically take long, careening, Middle Eastern-tinged solos. And that worked; both guys love their creepy chromatics, and they can get totally symphonic without being boring. Times have changed: instead of jabbing at each other to pull a song back on track, there’s a lot more interplay and at least semi-controlled chaos now. Ironically, the tighter they get, the more psychedelic the music is.

Bassist Nick Cudahy downtunes his axe now, for some serious tarpit sonics. Meanwhile, drummer Chris Stromquist makes the songs’ tricky rhythms look easy: the way he plays, no matter how bizarre the underlying beat is, you can stand and sway from side to side and not feel any more stoned than you might already be.

Obviously, you don’t have to be high to appreciate the band. One of the reasons why they’ve tightened up the show is that they have a lot more songs and they don’t have to stretch them out so much. They’re all covers, from the 1920s to the 1960s, most of them from the criminal and revolutionary underworld who fought against dictatorial terror and then a British invasion after World War II. Many of those tunes were written by ethnic Greeks who’d escaped persecution in Cyprus and Turkey, only to find themselves second-class citizens in their ancestral land.

The best song of the night was I’m a Junkie, which might have just been a shout-out to good hash, or something stronger – Marcum sings everything in the original Greek. The most lyrically innocuous love song of the night was also one of the most macabre. Police brutality, heavy partying, black humor behind bars, trans-Mediterranean drug smuggling and crack addiction were some of the other topics Marcum addressed – he almost always gives the audience a little translation for just about everything. They’re back at Niagara (Ave. A and 7th St., the former King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut across from the southwest corner of Tompking Square Park) this Thursday at 10. As a bonus, the excellent Trouble with Kittens – who play similarly edgy if somewhat quieter and faster, new wave-influenced songs – open the night at 9. Noir cinematic trio Sexmob‘s brilliant drummer, Kenny Wollesen is sitting in with them this for this show. It’s a pass-the-tip-jar situation.

The Best Concert of 2019 Is Just a Week Away

You don’t have to stay at Golden Fest until two in the morning. But pretty much everybody does. And an awful lot of those people are still dancing, eight hours after the festivities started. In terms of raw thrills, year after year, there is no other New York concert that can match this blissfully entertaining annual weekend festival of Balkan, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Slavic music and food. Golden Fest 2019 is this January 18 and 19 at the magnificent, old world Grand Prospect Hall on the south side of Park Slope, Brooklyn, just up the hill from the Prospect Ave. R station.

If doesn’t take much effort to discover a dozen or more acts you’ve never heard before, especially if you spend time in the smaller upstairs rooms rather than the big ballroom where most of the big brass bands play. You can also catch just as many of the best New York Balkan bands, or mix it up. At any moment, there’s always something worth seeing on at least four or five different stages spaced throughout all four floors of the mansion.

If the festival has one defining qualtiy, it’s that the earliest acts on the bill are just as good as the headliners, even if they tend to be little quieter. For this blog, the game plan for last year’s big Saturday night Golden Fest blowout as well as the year before was to see as many new acts as possible. Both times, the lure of some of this city’s most explosive bands proved too much to resist.

In their own quiet way, the Slaveya Women’s Choir – whose muted, otherworldly close harmonies spanned from Bulgaria to the Caucasus – were every bit as captivating as New York’s own Romashka. It was frontwoman Inna Barmash’s birthday, and she put on a party for the ages, with strings and guitar and tuba blasting behind her blissfully edgy wail, through one minor-key romp after another. That group had a great run back in the zeros; fifteen years or so later, they sill kick out the jams. Happily, their set was recorded; you can download it for free, and read a more detailed review here.

Where the Slaveya Women’s Choir had migrated so enigmatically between notes, the Istanbul Trio – fretless guitarist Ertugrul Erkisi, singer/percussionist Aslihan Erkisi and oudist Fatih Bayram – did the same, with even more edgy intensity and a classical Turkish focus. They would play an even more haunting show a couple of days later at Barbes under a different name.

The rest of the night was a crisscross between intended destinations and diversions. So many good bands, so little time. Here was where the hardcore triage set in. Kavala – a livewire Macedonian/Greek spinoff of Zlatne Uste, the festival’s founding icons – or Loza, a relatively rare meeting between the haunting oud of Adam Good and the similarly poignant vocals of Corinna Snyder? In this case, Loza won out.

How do you choose between the slinky, epic Dolunay and a rare New York appearance by the more cinematic Wind of Anatolia? In this case, the latter, a no less intense Turkish band won out. As the night went on, Egyptian film music revivalists Zikrayat wove plaintively undulating, trickily syncopated melodies, oudist Scott Wilson and Efendi put a twisted psychedelic rock spin on many of those same sounds and the nine-piece Novi Hitovi Brass Band made crazed jams out of searing minor-key Serbian riffs for the better part of an hour.

The loudest band to arguably ever play the festival was psychedelic rembetiko band Greek Judas, who reinvent the Middle Eastern-flavored sounds of the Greek gangster underworld and antifascist resistance movements in the 20s and 30s. The twin guitars of Adam Good and Wade Ripka (who doubled searingly on lapsteel) pummeled the crowd in one of the smaller side rooms, frontman Quince Marcum channeling a mad Dionysis in front of the band.

After midnight, the option to simmer down just a little with the elegant jazz of Tavcha Gravche – guitarist Dan Nadel, clarinetist Vasko Dukovski and bassist Daniel Ori – was a welcome chance to sit down and get lost in their improvisations, the night’s closest approximation of an American idiom. Zurli Drustvo -Tamberlaine and Drew Harris with percussionist Jerry Kisslinger – and Slavic Soul Party spinoff the Mountain Lions provided a surreal blast of fresh air with their microtonal zurla oboes

By the way, this is not how most people do Golden Fest. The big crowd hangs out by the big stage and gets down with a ferocious brass band lineup (clarinet wizard Michael Winograd’s titanic klezmer orchestra seemed to be the biggest hit – and largest ensemble – at this past year’s festival). And here’s a secret about the food: wait til midnight, you’ll be shocked by the quality and the quantity of what’s left over after the lines and lines of hungry dancers have finally satiated themselves. Although there are a lot of talented people circling the room and cutting a rug, there are no judgments if you’re a first-timer. Golden Fest 2019, here we come!

Brooklyn’s Creepiest Metal Band Hit Barbes Tomorrow Night, Golden Fest on the 13th.

Greek Judas have the creepiest, most twistedly psychedelic sound of any metal band in New York. They play electrified rebetiko music. Rebetiko was to Greece in the 1920s and 30s what metal was in the early 70s cinderblock slums of Europe: the default music of a disenfranchised criminal underworld. Rebetiko songs celebrate getting stoned, smuggling hash, running from the law and dealing with the consequences sometimes – what’s more metal than that, right? Greek Judas play those feral, frequently macabre, chromatically slashing anthems wearing animal masks, with their guitars turned up to eleven. Their debut album is streaming at Bandcamp; they’re playing Barbes tomorrow night, Jan 4 at 8 PM, then they’re at Golden Fest on the 13th where they will probably be louder than any of the blaring brass bands.

The album’s first track is Young Hash Smokers (the video is here). Adam Good’s sludgy growl anchors bandleader Wade Ripka’s nails-down-the-blackboard shrieks over the steady thud of bassist Nick Cudahy and drummer Chris Stromquist. Dressed in a monk’s robe, frontman Quince Marcum sings in Greek for a strong, expressive celebration of cannabis resin.

Ripka’s guitar prowls and slashes around the upper frets in How Long the Night, up to a sly trick ending. The band bookend the darkly sirening, slide guitar-fueled I’m a Junkie with ominously lingering pieces of the Beatles’ Within You and Without You, and the unexpectedly tasty addition of a string section.

Roma Girl comes across as a mashup of late Beatles clang and smoky Keith Richards riffage, with more darkness than either of those bands – suddenly it hits you that it’s a one-chord jam. The album’s high point and most recent number here, Kokkinia 1955, pulses like a desperately dying quasar, Ripka making evil tremolo metal out of what could have been a bagpipe tune in a past life.

The smugglers’ anthem Contrabandistas is both the album’s most broodingly catchy and epic track. Syndrofisses is a launching pad for the most hydroponically intertwining, Iron Maiden-style guitar here and an especially unhinged Ripka solo that Good leaps out of and takes the song into slyly sunbaked early 70s territory.

The most evocatively desperate number here is Why I Smoke Cocaine, a crack whore’s sad story – that stuff existed on the streets of Athens in the 20s. The final cut is I’ll Become a Monk, the closest thing to a poignant breakup anthem here. Best album of 2018 so far by a mile.

Fun fact: before they were Greek Judas, the core of the band were in a stately, more traditionally-oriented rebetiko trio, Que Vlo-ve. You can still get their singles as free downloads from Bandcamp.

Wild, Crazy, Deep Danceable Sounds at Last Night’s Borscht Ball in Bushwick

The dancing crowd at last night’s second annual Borscht Ball at Paperbox in Bushwick got to watch singer Svetlana Shmulyian – who has a gig with her bittersweetly torchy, cosmopolitan swing jazz band the Delancey Five coming up at Lucille’s on June 24 at 8 – sing coyly quirky old Soviet pop songs from the 60s in her native tongue, with a knowing happy-hour gleam in her eye.

They got to hear klezmer firebrand Daniel Kahn – who’s got a gig tonight at Joe’s Pub at 9:30 – unveil an obscure old Russian tune he’d never played before, which he’d just translated on the way down from Utica with fellow singer Psoy Korolenko. The gist of it was, “If the devil won’t take me, how about your bed.” Kahn had matched his English rhyme scheme to the original, quite a feat.

They got to pogo and linedance and twirl around the room as the Klezmatics aired out a fiery, characteristically ambitious series of new songs from their long-awaited forthcoming album. They got to see a parade of some of the world’s most sought-after talent in Jewish roots music – irrepressible Litvakus clarinetist/singer Dmitri Zisl Slepvovitch and charismatic Golem bandleader Annette Ezekiel Kogan among them – beat a path on and off the stage as the music shifted from defiantly joyous, to wounded angst, to full-throttle klezmer punk.

The festival’s raison d’etre is to provide a snapshot of the many different flavors of klezmer punk from around the world. If you think that’s a little esoteric, consider that there are hundreds of bands who would have fit this bill. If the Klezmatics weren’t the first, they opened the floodgates and have since inspired more than a generation of musicians. Playing their thirtieth anniversary show, they drew on sounds as disparate as Romanian, Turkish, Ukrainian and Catalan folk traditions while adding their signature firepower and jazz sophistication. Trumpeter Frank London played his usual, alternately crystalline and ferociously elephantine trumpet with his right hand while doing catchy arpeggios and comping chords on organ with his left. Matt Darriau ripped through careening postbop jazz on tenor sax and spun off spirals on clarinet over the stampeding, sometimes vaudevillian pulse of drummer Richie Barshay and bassist Paul Morrissett while frontman/accordionist Lorin Sklamberg sang in Yiddish, Russian and English. At the end of their sizzling opening set, he told the crowd that they’d be back, and by the end they pretty much all were, joining the members of Opa in careening versions of well-loved classics like Limonchiki and Bei Mir Bist Du Shein.

Brooklyn supergroup Svetlana and the Eastern Blokhedz – Shmulyian backed by bandleader Wade Ripka on guitar, his Greek Judas bandmates Quince Marcum on horn and vocals and Nick Cudahy on bass, Isaak Mills on guitar, sax and glockenspiel, Choban Elektrik‘s Jordan Shapiro and Las Rubias Del Norte‘s Allyssa Lamb on keys, and Slavic Soul Party‘s Chris Stromquist on drums – kept the dancers on their feet, opening and eventually closing with psychedelic garage pop that sounded straight out of France, 1969. Who says the Russians ever outgrew their French fixation, anyway? From there Shmulyian led them nimbly and warmly through a Russian pop counterpart to Dancin’ in the Rain, to nostalgic salutes to motherhood and romance and eventually a Soviet equivalent of “Celebrate good times, c’mon!” True to form, their deadpan version of the Ventures’ Cold War instrumental classic Spudnik was irresistibly funny in context.

Making their U.S. debut, eclectic Russian band  Opa headlined and offered an unstoppably kinetic take on many of the directions klezmer continues to expand into. With tenor saxophone, trumpet, trombone, guitar, bass and drums going full force, they opened with a catchy old Russian riff that they built into straight-ahead oldschool disco. From there the band romped back and forth through time, vocally and instrumentally, flavored with acidic no wave guitar, Talking Heads funk and maybe a little Gang of Four. As the special guests made their way to the stage until there wasn’t much room left up there, the group took a detour into the tropics with some rocksteady, a couple of snaky klezmer cumbia mashups, a bit of Balkan reggae, hints of salsa and then a rousing return to the classics at the end of four nonstop hours of music. By then most of the oldsters – an impressive number, considering how deep in the ‘Shweck the venue is – had gone home, leaving the floor to the kids, many of them couples, who’d spent pretty much the entire time on their feet. By then it was as if the music itself had taken on a personality of its own, overjoyed to be brought back from death’s door in the nick of time.

Greek Judas Bring Their Ferociously Psychedelic Middle Eastern-Flavored Metal Back to Barbes

There’s so much going on in this city that even with the ongoing gentrification-driven brain drain depleting the talent base, there’s more good music than a single blog could conceivably cover. Which creates a triage situation. Doesn’t it make the most sense to cast as wide a net as possible rather than focusing on one scene, which in this city, these days, is probably more of a micro-scene anyway? On the other hand, some bands are so much fun that you want to see them again. For example, this blog caught Greek Judas’ first-ever show at Barbes last year, which was so interesting, and so much different from anything else in town right now. Their next gig is back at Barbes at 10 PM on February 25.

The prospect of seeing the group – who do artsy metal covers of obscure, Middle Eastern-flavored gangster songs from the 1920s and 1930s Greek underground – on Lemmy’s birthday (RIP) was impossible to resist, especially since it was an early afterwork show. That made it easy to run to the G train afterward before the line went dead and hightail it over to Williamsburg to grab a couple of drinks at Duff’s. And then head up to Grand Victory, where Karla Rose & the Thorns finally hit the stage just a little before midnight, then rampaged through a murderously intense set featuring a couple of tunes by the Misfits and Buzzcocks in addition to Rose’s own misterioso minor-key noir narratives.

Greek Judas’ show that evening, as you would expect, was a lot tighter than their debut back in August. The group have been mining the crime rhymes and drugrunning anthems popular among Greek Cypriot refugees of a hundred years ago for awhile, first doing them pretty straight-up under the name Que Vlo-Ve (whose Bandcamp page has an intriguing handful of free downloads). But electrifying the songs (Judas – get it?) seemed inevitable. Guitarist Wade Ripka now switches back and forth between his six-sring and a lapsteel, which he runs through a Fender tube amp with the reverb way up for a ferocious blast of sound. His six-string counterpart Adam Good draws on his chops as A-list Middle Eastern oudist: at this show, the two traded searing, chromatically slashing minor-key verses and ended up stomping all over the end of each others’ phrases to seal the deal.

At both this show and their most recent one at the end of last month at Barbes, frontman Quince Marcum ran his vocals through the board clean without any effects rather than using the trippy, pitch-twisting pedalboard he brought the first time out. He played horn on one of the final numbers, singing in Greek in a strong, resonant baritone. From the perspective of a non-Greek speaker, it’s impossible to get what they do on more than a musical level, but Marcum offers helpful translations and has an unselfconscious passion for the songs. Crack whores, hash smugglers, henpecked husbands, busted beggars trying to outwit the cops, gangsters in jail plotting their next move (let’s get our ouds and jam!) all make appearances. The band’s usual choice of closing number sounds like the Bad Brains.

It’s hard to figure what kind of ceiling any band in town has these days: there’s more money to be made from the road than there is here, that’s for sure. But at the very least, on an artistic level anyway, Greek Judas are on the way up. If only for the cred of being able to saying you were there when it happened, if dark and assaultive sounds are your thing, now’s the time to catch them.

Greek Judas: New York’s Best New Psychedelic Band

Greek Judas made their debut last night at Barbes. They’re amazing. Comprising most of the members of Greek rembetiko revivalists Que Vlo-Ve, they’ve reached the inevitable point where it made sense to completely and explosively electrify the colorful, gritty repertoire from the 1920s and 30s underground that they’ve mined up to this point. Wade Ripka alternated between roaring, poinpoint-precise, menacingly chromatic electric guitar leads and and searing lapsteel lines, joined by a masked rhythm guitarist who doubled on tenor sax on one of the later numbers. Slavic Soul Party drummer Chris Stromquist nimbly led the group through the songs’ relentlessly tricky changes with stomp and aplomb while bassist Nick Cudahy was the picture of cool, chilling in the back, delivering the same kind of effortless psychedelic groove that he did for so long in the late, great Chicha Libre. Toward the end of the set, frontman Quince Marcum picked up his horn and joined with the sax player for some intricate twin leads on what sounded like a brass band mashup of Macedonian folk and Led Zep.

Was Marcum running his resonant baritone vocals through a phaser? Yesssssss! And a whole bunch of other trippy, creepy patches too! When not singing in Greek, he had a lot of fun explaining the gist of the songs. This stuff is wild. A seafaring anthem celebrated smuggling untaxed cigarettes and Iranian hash. In their jail cell, couple of magges conspire about what they’re going to do once they get out: “Restring my bouzouki for me, babe, I’m coming home,” one announces, more or less. A couple of rude guys drool over a Romany girl, while another complains that his icy girlfriend has driven him into the monastery, metaphorically at least. And one of the later numbers reminded that crack whores existed in Greece in 1927 – and that crack was just as wack then as it is now. The band wound up their roughly 45-minute set with a pounding one-chord stomp that sounded like the Bad Brains playing Greek music. A screaming guitar band playing hardcore punk rock at Barbes? Damn straight. If you’re in the neighborhood and you like artsy metal or psychedelia, you’d be crazy to miss the band’s second-ever show when they play here on August 27 at 8 PM.

Ripka’s chromatically bristling spirals and leaps over Stromquist’s stately beat on the night’s opening number brought to mind killer Greek surf band the Byzan-tones. The band went for careening metal majesty on the night’s sescond number, resonant guitar snarl over an unexpectedly straight-up, hypnotic, boomy beat on the one after that. On the following tune, Ripka’s aching twang rang out over Stomquist’s tense, tight 7/8 beat as Marcum’s vocals swirled and echoed. The best song of the night was also the most Middle Eastern-influenced, a titanic blast of sabertoothed leads from Ripka’s guitar over the swaying roar of the rest of the band. This group’s ceiling is practically unlimited. First gig ever, there was a good crowd at Barbes, and that following will grow. St. Vitus seems inevitable; after that, Donington here we come!. Wait til the metal crowd discovers these guys: they’ll be able to make a living on their road til they’re in their eighties if they feeling like cranking it up like they did last night.

Que Vlo-Ve Bring Haunting, Edgy Greek Crime Rhymes and Revolutionary Anthems to Barbes

Que Vlo-Ve aren’t the only band in town who play haunting, Turkish-influenced Greek revolutionary songs and hash-smoking anthems from the 20s and 30s, but they’re one of the best. Right now they’ve got three singles up at Bandcamp as free downloads, which offer an intriguing glimpse of the kind of material they’re likely to air out at their upcoming show at Barbes on Nov 26 at 8 PM. The first song, O Psilos, shows off the lively, upbeat side of their music. The second, Ferte Preza Na Prezaro, dances along with forceful Greek vocals from frontman/percussionist Quince Marcum and biting chromatics from violinist Maya Shanker and guitarists Wade Ripka and Izaak Mills. The most recent one, To Baglamadaki Spase is slower and more brooding.

At their previous Barbes show, Marcum told the audience that although it would be overly reductionistic to explain this music as something created by a clash between stoners and drunks, there’s some truth to that. The backstory is that when the Turkish dictatorship kicked its indigenous Greek population out of Smyrna right before World War I, those people once again found themselves outcasts once they’d made it to Greece since their expatriate culture differed in many ways from what was the rule on the mainland. As a soundtrack to their demimonde, which helped fuel the Greek underground resistance to their own repressive dictatorship, they invented rembetiko, the so-called “Greek gangster blues” that draws heavily on ominous, Middle Eastern sounds from Turkey and points further east.

Marcum intoned in an expressive baritone as Shanker and Ripka passed a spiky baglama lute back and forth. One airy song concerned a guy trying to impress a hot girl with how cunning a linguist he is – he speaks both Greek and Turkish, plus, since she’s Jewish, a little Ladino. Another, The Knife Fight offered a tale of death and retribution in the criminal underworld: hip-hop themes go back a lot further than Biggie Smalls. The chorus of one murky, hypnotic tune reminded how it takes a stoner to know a stoner: a Greek take on When You’re a Viper, more or less. A little later they played an even more hypnotic tune, a drug smuggler’s sea chantey of sorts.

Ripka opened a couple of numbers with slowly unfolding, mysterious guitar improvisations, one on baglama. Shanker’s soaring violin carried most of the big crescendos and the occasional departure into otherworldly Arabic microtones. The funniest number was The Flea, a deviously dancing tune: Marcum explained that its gist is, “I will penetrate you and keep you awake, just like you keep me awake all night.” For the sake of the non-Greek speakers in the crowd, that context added a dimension too often missing at performances of this kind of esoterica.

What does Que Vlo-Ve mean? That’s not clear. However, there once was a scholarly journal of Apollinaire studies with that same name.