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Tag: Willa Roberts

Powerful, Provocative and Playful Performances at the Opening of the New St. Ann’s Warehouse

If you could perform a Yoko Ono world premiere with the Kronos Quartet and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, wouldn’t you jump at the opportunity? That’s what the audience at the grand opening of the new St. Ann’s Warehouse in Dumbo did Saturday night…literally. It was a playful Pauline Oliveros-style improv: everybody got to be rain, and snow, and a momentary thunderstorm. It wasn’t on the bill: from the looks of it, those of us who knew about it beforehand kept that information to ourselves.

The rest of the program embraced the cutting-edge, the profound and the warmly familliar. Choir leader Dianne Berkun-Menaker guided a beefed-up take of Americana band the Wailin’ Jennys‘ One Voice, plus an easygoing audience singalong of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Our House. Accompanied by vibraphonist David Cossin, the chorus opened the show with Aleksandra Vrebalov‘s Bubbles, a deliciously entertaining suite juxtaposing droll water noises with achingly lush, neoromantic atmospherics. The composer smartly chose to end on a humorous note: even the most serious-minded performer would have had a hard time getting through this one without collapsing in laughter. Caroline Shaw’s Its Motion Keeps, reprised from the chorus’ earlier performance this month at National Sawdust, maintained the kinetic pulse with its dynamic shifts, quirky accents and challenging polyrhythms, all seamlessly performed.

The most cutting-edge moment of the program was when the groups were joined by pioneering Balkan a-cappella trio Black Sea Hotel, who reinvent Bulgaian and Macedonian folk themes, sometimes cutting largescale choral works to their stark roots, sometimes creating 21st century arrangements of ancient folk tunes. The chorus seemed turbocharged for this one, poised to provide waves of dark earthtone color, elegantly slow glissandos and plainchant-like precision behind the microtonally-spiced, eerie close harmonies of Willa Roberts, Shelley Thomas and Sarah Small. The piece itself, titled Around the Forest, A Youth Roams; The Forest Is Shaking and Swaying, was composed by Small – whose repertoire extends to art-song, largescale ensemble works and tableaux vivants – in collaboration with Brooklyn Balkan icon and theatrical composer Rima Fand.

The most relevant pieces on the bill were both world premieres, Sahba Aminikia‘s Sound, Only Sound Remains, and Mary Kouyoumdjian‘s Become Who I Am. The former gave the quartet a stern and austerely waltzing arrangement, delivered with precision against multitracks of women singers in Iran along with a digitized copy of a hundred-year-old 78 RPM folk recording. In Iran, it’s illegal for a woman to sing unaccompanied by men; this expression of global solidarity spoke volumes. Likewise, the latter of the premieres incorporated a litany of increasingly cutting, sardonic spoken-word snippets from members of the chorus into its carefully crescendoing, plaintive sweep, contemplating ongoing challenges facing women inside and outside of music. Bottom line: the glass ceiling might have a few cracks, but it’s still there. And if you thought the pressure to conform – especially for girls – was bad when you were a kid, it’s brutal now.

About the new space: it’s gorgeous. Tiered seating offers clear sightlines, and the sonics are pristine. While you can hear a pin drop when it’s quiet, it’s not a completely dry space like Avery Fisher Hall. And the hot chocolate at the food stand out front was getting the thumbs-up from the chocoholics in the crowd.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Best New York Concerts of 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black Sea Hotel Delivers Hauntingly Innovative Versions of Classic Balkan Songs

This blog’s predecessor affectionately dubbed Black Sea Hotel “a punk rock version of Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares.” The Brooklyn a-cappella trio sing haunting, bracingly intense folk songs from the Balkans, specializing in Bulgarian and Macedonian tunes. That they were invited to perform at the Bulgarian Consulate attests to their cred and grasp of Balkan languages (none of the trio are native speakers). That it’s impossible to tell from the album who’s singing what testifies to the meticulously nuanced, otherworldly vocal sorcery of Willa Roberts, Sarah Small and Corinna Snyder (who has since left the ensemble). Their second cd, The Forest Is Shaking and Swaying, might well be the most magical album put out by any New York group in the past several years, let alone 2013.  The three women swoop and dive from stratospheric highs to resonant lows, with eerie close harmonies, ornamented trills, the occasional whoop of delight or dread suddenly cut off cold.

If their music sounds troubled, that’s because times were hard back when these songs were a central part of village life. Yet the themes are universal: girls want their guys to buy them stuff (and they like to strut it), neighbors are nosy, and everybody wants someone and something they can’t have. Much of the album was recorded at Temple Beth Emeth in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, whose rich natural reverb adds to the songs’ lingering mystery. The group’s favorite harmony is A-Bflat-B – can anything possibly be any cooler than that? And not to dis founding member Joy Radish, who left the group in around 2010, but these trio arrangements, most of them by the members themselves, are just as inventive as the charts sung by the quartet on their 2009 debut album. Some are beefed-up folk melodies, others are scaled-down versions of works typically sung by large choirs.

If you’re not Bulgarian. you’d probably never guess that the gist of the tricky metrics, pinpoint staccato and acidic harmonies of the opening track describes a guy promising to buy shoes and a dress for his sweetheart. Likewise, Small’s conspiratorial arrangement of a Macedonian song, where a guy asks for a bunch of basil from a girl’s garden and she basically tells him to get lost…unless he’s single. But a lot of the melodies and arrangements deliver a message that transcends language. There’s a wartime ache and longing in a brooding, atmospheric Macedonian tune whose message is essentially, “Come meet the rebels, they’re coming down from the mountain.” A Snyder arrangement of a song about a surreal dream concerning (symbolism alert) two doves being killed by bullets has the livewire intensity of a brass band. Roberts’ arrangement of a Bulgarian song about a woman asking a cuckoo where her lost love might be has a distantly imploring quality, as well as a sense of flight vividly captured in the vocals’ slides and atmospherics. There are eight other tracks here dealing with supernatural dragonmen, nobles greedily awaiting the death of a rival, flirtatious guys and their consequences in, maybe, the 17th century, a bitter contemplation of old age, and one song partially in tersely poetic English translation.  All of these have a similarly crystalline beauty and persistent unease. For non Bulgarian and Macedonian speakers, the album comes with a helpful digest of song meanings.

What is the future for these three edgy singers? Snyder has a career in academia; Roberts is also an accomplished violinist; and Small – daughter of acclaimed, individualistic pianist/composer Haskell Small – may actually be better known as a photographer. Her elegant largescale tableaux are sort of a classier counterpart to Spencer Tunick’s work.

A Whirlwind East Coast Tour by Black Sea Hotel

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

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

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

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

Brazda Mesmerizes the Crowd at Barbes

“I lost my youth and my looks to a man who smoked too much cocaine,” Brazda frontwoman Shelley Thomas explained to the crowd at Barbes Friday night. She was offering an English translation of the lyrics to a Greek rembetiko song from the 1930s that she’d just sung with a plaintive, microtonally chilling unease. Obviously, crack was as wack back then as it is now. Thomas did that all night – translating, that is, after pretty much every song she’d sung in several languages including Bulgarian, Greek and Romanes. She’s a nonchalantly riveting singer with a warmly organic, dulce de leche voice that’s unusual in Balkan music (she also has a background in Indian music and sings with the exhilarating New York Arabic Orchestra). Joining her, mostly on low harmony vocals, was Black Sea Hotel’s equally formidable, eclectically intense Willa Roberts. Together they soared, smoldered and wailed through a series of broodingly ornamented, bristlingly microtonal laments about rebel soldiers fighting off Ottoman invaders, guys having trouble with their moms who want to marry them off and mothers who won’t let them near their daughters, as well as nightingales to whom you offer wine at night but poison in the morning because you don’t want them to wake you up. They began slowly and gently, voices mingling  austerely with Connell Thompson’s moody minor-key clarinet lines, Francesco Marcocci’s steady, pulsing bass and the 9/4, 10/4, 11/8 and various other hypnotically labyrinthine rhythms of the two percussionists.

The show quickly picked up steam. “We’re going to get really villagey now,” Roberts announced with a a grin, then the two women ran through what was essentially a long medley of old Bulgarian songs packed with tricky trills and otherworldly close harmonies. Thompson picked up the pace as well with fiery doublestops, fang-baring chromatic runs and slinky modal vamps, Roberts swaying, eyes closed, completely lost in the music. At one point late in the show, it suddenly seemed that there was a second horn onstage, but no: Thomas had simply decided to improvise a low, cool harmony line against the clarinet. The high point of the show was a lush, moody, poignant anthem about a woman freedom fighter in Bulgaria battling the invading Turks, Roberts and Thomas exchanging long, hauntingly resonant tones. Beyond the goosebumps generated by everybody in the band – including a jaunty gypsy jazz bass solo on one of the closing numbers – was the fact that they were missing both their accordionist and violinist. They’re at Korzo on May 21 at 9. Roberts and Thomas are also taking part in the vocal celebration of Titania (the Shakespearean heroine from A Midsummer Night’s Dream) that’s happening at the Hive in Bushwick (20 Cook St. off Metropolitan Ave., J/M to Flushing Ave) on April 27.

Catching Up on Concerts…Again

The point of this blog’s Sunday Salon at Zirzamin is to create a scene. There are other good scenes in New York: all the good things happening at Barbes; oldtime Americana at the Jalopy; latin jazz at the Jazz Gallery, Jan Bell’s country and blues thing at 68 Jay St. Bar, Alexandra Joan‘s thematic classical series at WMP Concert Hall. But there’s no central rock scene in New York, unless you count the loser indie rock thing, whatever that is, in bush-WECK, as the gentrifier children there say in their funny accents. Because this blog’s focus is global, it’s been awhile since there’s been any report here on all the under-the-radar happenings at Zirzamin and elsewhere around town. So here we go!

Eclectic Canadian songwriter/chanteuse Lily Frost and her brilliant multi-instrumentalist husband Jose Contreras (not the guy who inadvertently springboarded the phrase “evil empire“) began their  most recent show at Zirzamin by cranking up Contreras’ phone, setting the mood with a delicious mix of vintage Hawaiian guitar tunes. Much as Frost had her sultry voodoo lounge voice in full effect, she was a whirlwind onstage, alternating between vocals, guitar, keys, percussion and theremin. She and Contreras gave a southwestern gothic menace to hazy Mazzy Star jangle, did Billie Holiday as gypsy jazz and Pink Floyd’s San Tropez as the cruel proto-Margaritaville satire that Roger Waters didn’t have the range to pull off. But Frost’s originals were the most memorable: lush Gainsbourg/Birkin style psychedelic pop, the deceptively biting if sugary bounce of Do What You Love and an especially menacing, noir cabaret-infused take of Grenade, the darkest song on her latest album. At the end of the set they channeled the Dream Syndicate and encored with an unexpectedly carefree Buddy Holly cover. Frost has been making frequent return trips here: let’s hope she makes it down again soon.

The featured artists at Sunday Salon 17 were Black Sea Hotel and they were as breathtakingly haunting and otherworldly as always. The trio of Sarah Small, Corinna Snyder and Willa Roberts have made a name for themselves in Balkan music circles for their original arrangements of large-scale Bulgarian choral works: that these Americans were invited to perform at the Bulgarian consulate pretty much speaks for itself. Small’s register-smashing range, Roberts’ wild ornamentation and Snyder’s powerful, soul-mutating wail matched against each other with eerie close harmonies, minutely gleaming microtones, rapidfire lyrical gymnastics balanced by lushly sustained passages. When Roberts announced that one of their songs had been featured in a horror film, that came as no surprise. They took care to explain the songs’ topics, from the idea of shoes as ghetto bling among the peasantry, to strange, shapeshifing, lethal dragon-men, to the town of Zborinka which apparently drew all the guys in centuries past since it was rumored you could always get a girl there. The more things change, etc. The trio closed with a new song which included a verse translated to English, and a brand-new arrangement with slinky polyrhythms and interwoven harmonies so tight they could have been a string section. Their debut album from a couple of years back is amazing, and they’re working on a follow-up. Canadian gothic songstress Lorraine Leckie – who’s been the most consistent star of the Sunday Salon since it debuted right after the hurricane last year – kept the lushly haunting intensity going with a stripped-down trio performance highlighted by several numbers from her most recent chamber pop album, Rudely Interrupted, a collaboration with social critic/journalist/personality Anthony Haden-Guest. And she and her band the Demons are back at Zirzamin on May 5 at 7.

The following Saturday at the National Underground, powerhouse ragtime pianist Jack Spann opened with a sizzling solo set of originals ranging from the haunting Roly-Poly Man – a chilling story of murder and karmic payback – to an unexpectedly pensive, catchy ballad written by his wife. Spann then joined lyrical rocker Walter Ego, amping up one of his bluesier numbers. Walter (to call him “Ego” just doesn’t sound right) was similarly on his game, running through a set that ranged from a morbid art-rock piano number told from the point of view of a subway motorman who’s just hit someone on the tracks, to the gorgeously, cruelly metaphorical I Am the Glass, to a couple of catchy guitar tunes that evoked influences as diverse as the Kinks, Elvis Costello and of course the Fab Four (this guy knows the Beatles like few others). The best of these – it’s hard to choose – could have been a sardonically catchy, jangly number about minimizing one’s life, to the point where the womb and points even lower on the evolutionary scale begin to look appealing. Walter Ego is at Zirzzmin after the Salon on Apr 28 at 7.

Raquel Bell headlined Sunday Salon 18 with her Mesiko bandmate, guitarist David Marshall  joining her for a characteristically uneasy, electric Neil Young-flavored tune. Bell has a history of brilliant collaborations: she co-led Norden Bombsight, an art-rock band who will be legendary someday when they’re rediscovered; lately she’s been singing and playing keys with violist Jessica Pavone in Normal Love, as well as fronting Mesiko with their dusky Americana menace. Bell has grown into an adept guitarist, playing solo on electric, shifting from distant jangly ominousness to an unexpectedly cheery, funky pop song titled Harry Partch. Then she switched to her vintage analog synth, sounding like a young Patti Smith backed by Tangerine Dream. The occasional moments where the synth went out of tune only added to the creepily carnivalesque atmospherics. Her voice lept and dove as the loops pulsed; she ended her set with a brooding, Marble Index-ish tone poem of sorts. She and Mesiko are at Zirzamin every Sunday for the remainder of April at around 10:30 PM.

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.

Otherworldly Cutting-Edge Balkan Beauty from Black Sea Hotel

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

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

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