It wouldn’t be fair to let the month go by without mentioning the debut performance of Anderson Henderson White at Zirzamin a few weeks ago, following the Sunday Salon put on by Lucid Culture’s sister blog New York Music Daily. Baritone saxophonist Paula Henderson seems to be the sparkplug for this exciting new trio, who blended groove and funk with mysterious free improvisation. Her fellow Australian, the Dirty Three’s Jim White on drums was his usual counterintuitive self: it’s hard to think of a drummer who’s so consistently interesting to watch as this guy, alternating between cymbal bell-tones and atmospherics of all kinds, shamanistic rattles of the hardware and rock-solid groove, all the while adding off-kilter accents on the rims and whirring brushes on the snare. He’s a one-man drum orchestra.
Rev. Vince Anderson has made a name for himself in both the roots of jazz (you should hear him covering Howlin’ Wolf), and sounds that sprung from jazz (a more dedicated Billy Preston acolyte never existed), so plunging face first into free jazz is a natural progression for him. He was just as fascinating to watch, making minute adjustments on his Nord Electro keyboard for reverb and distortion, through a long, murky, wall-bending pitchblende interlude on the lowest keys before rising with an acrid, acidically bluesy minimalism as he adjusted the timbres to cut through the fog of cymbals and Henderson’s own nebulous ambience. Her most memorable moment came on one of her signature, sly go-go vamps, part purist bluesmistress, part coy seductress, part dancefloor maven just as she was for the better part of a decade in her cult favorite baritone/bass/drums trio Moisturizer. Some baritone players use the instrument for droll humor, others like a bass; she knows how sexy the baritone is and works it like a charm. White is the magic ingredient that holds it all together. Anderson plays every Monday night with his deliriously fun, funky jamband the Love Choir (in which Henderson has played since the 90s) at Union Pool at around 11:30 PM; White plays with a lot of people, considering that everybody wants to play with him.
Chanteuse/pianist Nicole Zuraitis’ new sophomore album is intriguing titled Pariah Anthem. Zuraitis certainly doesn’t look like a pariah and doesn’t sing like one either. The album is a collection of opaque, reflective ballads that work both sides of the line between jazz and funk, or jazz and soul. She fronts a band of hungry up-and-coming New York players: Julian Shore on electronic keys, Victor Gould on piano, Billy Buss on trumpet, Ilan Bar-Lavi on electric guitar, Scott Colberg on bass and Dan Pugach on drums. Zuraitis has a powerful mezzo-soprano that suprisingly never cuts loose here to the extent that she can live: she can belt with anyone. A casual listener might hear this at low volume and mistake it for a misguided attempt at top 40, but it’s not. Zuraitis works her dynamics artfully, rising and falling, and knows when to make a break in the clouds with a big anthemic crescendo or slashing piano riff. She plays the album release show this Sunday June 23 at 7 PM at the big room at the Rockwood with Jeremy Pelt guesting on trumpet. On June 28 she’s at the Astor Room, 34-12 36th St. in Astoria at 7 PM.
The album’s opening track, Stinger kicks off with bright, hopeful trumpet over a summery, funky sway and works its way to a catchy vamp spiced by Shore’s electric piano. Watercolors is gentler and more soul-tinged, a thoughtful ballad with a little slink to it. Try, Love is an Americana-tinged waltz in the same vein as Sasha Dobson, followed by the faster, funkier Secrets, lit up by Shore’s scampering Rhodes breaks.
Zuraitis brings it down again with the moody, almost minmialist Staring into the Sun, using it as a long launching pad for her most spine-tingling vocal flights here. The trickily rhythmic, staccato To the River builds intensity to a big, angst-fueled romp, the whole band going full steam. They follow that with the nonchalantly incisive Dagger, Bar-Lavi tossing off a biting, slashing flight down the scale. Zuraitis’ moody resonance at the piano anchors Buss’ sun-through-the-clouds fills on The Bridge, a blissful escape anthem of sorts, emphasis on bliss.
Zuraitis comes out from behind the keys for the pensive, almost rubato rainy-day ballad If Only for Today, Gould taking over on piano; it’s her most nuanced performance here and it’s a quiet knockout, something that wouldn’t be out of place in the Blossom Dearie songbook..The album ends with the title track, a slinky soul groove that almost imperceptibly rises to a bristling intensity. “With every breath there lives a ghost,” Zuraitis sings uneasily. “What was lost won’t rise in vain, all will meet on an even plane,” she portends as Bar-Lavi’s guitar sheds sparks and the rhythm section pulses. It’s a powerful way to end this distinctive and genre-defying album.
The new Monika Roscher Big Band album, Failure in Wonderland is a wildly fearless, uncategorizable thrill ride. What is this? Noir cabaret? Psychedelic rock? Big band swing? Horror movie music? All of the above and more. As she tells it, guitarist/singer/composer Roscher spent a year in Illinois as a German exchange student. While her peers were watching tv, she was practicing, soaking up musical scores and learning Frank Zappa licks. Her young band has been together a bit over a year and already has this monstrous masterpiece to show for it. It’s sort of like the missing link between Mucca Pazza and Sexmob (who have a phenomenal new album of Nino Rota film pieces due out soon).Like the latter group’s leader Steve Bernstein, Roscher likes long, crescendoing vamps and seems to be noir to the core. If you like the idea of a Jeff Lynne-esque vocoder trip-hop intro into a creepy noir cabaret piano loop that builds to a stomping, surreal menace with marching Zappaesque guitar line as the brass pulses behind it, that’s just the first half of the first track. From there, the circus rock menace rises with Josef Ressle’s biting piano and squalling, smoky bari sax from Heiko Geiring – and it only gets better from there.
Deadpan, fractured English lyrics move in over another trip-hop intro on the second track, Future3, followed by pillowy reeds, Roscher shredding the scenery with some wild tremolo-picking punctuated by big incisions from the band as the arrangement grows more stately. The catchy yet utterly dissociative Irrlicht works big Gil Evans-ish swells into a carnivalesque pulse, up to a scorching crescendo that hands off to Matthias Lindrmayr’s rapidfire muted trumpet and then a slowly spinning, pitchblende vortical sway.
Wuste works a creepy minor-key come-hither Blonde Redhead-ish intro and then takes on a brooding, low-key gypsy rock feel that grows more and more macabre, spiced by Roscher’s surealistic, processed vocals, Ressle’s sepulcural wee-hours piano and Jan Kiesewetter’s lonesome soprano sax. Die Parade is a twisted funeral march, as plaintive as it is blackly amusing. As with the rest of the tracks here, the voicings are imaginative and often pack a wallop, here with Andreas Unterreiner’s trumpet nonchalantly pairing off with Peter Palmer’s even more morose trombone. The way the procession disintegrates is too clever and amusing to give away here; the trick ending is typical of the sheer unpredictability and gleeful menace of Roscher’s compositional style.
Human Machines establishes a torchy Lynchian atmosphere, a sardonic commentary on the human tendency toward conformity, fueled by Roscher’s noir tremolo lines and torchy vocals – she’s the rare bandleader who’s also a first-class singer – and Ressle’s incisive piano. Unlike the other tracks here, this one ends optimistically: humans win! By contrast, Schnee Aus Venedig is a defiantly macabre, tiptoeing sideshow theme that eventually follows a breathless trajectory up to a wry Beatles allusion. It foreshadows the Montenegrin cabaret gloom of When I Fall in Love, Kiesewetter’s Jon Irabagon-esque japes, Geiring’s baritone squall and Roscher’s wah-infused, funky menace taking it in a vintage P-Funk direction. The album ends, appropriately enough, with Nacht, rising from skeletal tango to a noir flamenco overture, reaching peak altitude on Roscher’s rippling, weirdly processed arpeggios.
Fans of dark ornate acts as diverse as Botanica, Gil Evans, and Sexmob will eat this up. Best jazz album of the year? Maybe. Best rock record of the year? Probably. Whatever you want to call it, it’s a lot of fun. And in case you’re wondering what the title refers to, here’s Roscher: “The blemished beauty of Alice…the tension between harmony and disharmony that I can only vaguely approach with my lyrics. To me words cannot nail it the way music does.” It’s out now from Enja Records.
Reut Regev is one of the ringleaders in minor-key jam band Hazmat Modine’s wild brass section, and a unique, original voice on the trombone. She’s got an eclectically fun new album, Exploring the Vibe, out with her stoner funk band, R*Time, which blends elements of jazz, no wave, Ethiopian and Balkan music, among other styles. Regev got the inspiration for the project at a festival in Germany where she had the chance to play with guitarist Jean-Paul Bourelly and realized that the chemistry for a good album was there. The rhythm section here is Regev’s husband Igal Foni on drums and Mark Peterson on bass, with cameos from Kevin Johnson on drums and Jon Sass on tuba. As you would expect, there’s a hypnotic, psychedelic aspect to this; at the same time, Bourelly and Regev utilize a lot of space, judiciously choosing their moments over an undulating groove. Much as a lot of the music has a restlessness and unease, a wry sense of humor pokes out from time to time. It’s a fun ride.
Bourelly plays mostly with a tinge of dirty, natural distortion when he’s not adding subtle ornamentation with his effects. Regev is a very incisive, rhythmic player, although she also likes ambient, shadowy colors. Peterson’s work here is hook-oriented – there are several passages where the drums drop out, or there’s skeletal percussion rattling around and that’s where the bass carries both melody and rhythm. Foni likes the rumbling lows, but like the rest of this crew, he doesn’t waste beats.
The opening track, Drama Maybe Drama, is a tongue-in-cheek diptych, Bourelly going off on a completely unexpected, early Jimmy Page-tinged open-tuned tangent midway through. They follow that with a buzzing, loopy, unresolved interlude and then Montenegro, which hints at reggae, funk and disco before finally hitting some Balkan riffage and then a Middle Eastern-flavored bass solo. Bluegrass and Ethiopian tinges sit side by side in Ilha Bela, a minimalisti but catchy tune with doppler trombone from Regev. Madeleine Forever, a tribute to Foni’s mom, illustrates someone who could be severe but was also very funny, winding up with biting Big Lazy-style skronky funk.
Blue Llamas makes a good segue, again evoking Big Lazy with its allusive chromatics, stomping, spacious blues, hard-hitting guitar and hypnotic rimshot rhythm. OK OJ coalesces toward a camelwalking East African groove with some neat handoffs between the guitar and trombone and a tongue-in-cheek “let’s go” outro. Raw Way, ostensibly a Junior Kimhrough homage, sounds nothing like him: way down beneath all the rumbling and shrieking and free interplay, it’s a terse blues. New Beginning is a weirdly successful, catchy attempt to merge New Orleans funk and Hendrix. There’s also a wryly bluesy guitar miniature and a bizarre stoner soul song sung by Bourelly. Who is the audience for this? Obviously, jazz fans, although people who gravitate toward the more psychedelic side of funk have an awful lot to sink their ears into.
Isn’t it funny how the world’s full of bad guitarists…bad sax players…bad drummers…but when you think about it, how many bad B3 players are there? For one reason or another, that’s one instrument that seems to draw an endless supply of passionate players. One of the most energetic of all of them is longtime Pat Martino collaborator Tony Monaco, who has a massive double cd release, Celebration, a “limited edition” out from Summit. What Monaco writes and plays is a sophisticated update on boisterous afterwork 60s organ-lounge jazz, more Bombay martini than gin and water. Monaco’s typical m.o. – which he actually varies from frequently here – is to open with a blistering, machinegun solo followed by tuneful restatements of the melody. For someone as fast and furious as this guy, it’s impressive how he doesn’t waste notes. Just as impressive is his command of an eclectic mix of styles.
The first cd is mainly trio or quartet numbers featuring Ken Fowser on tenor sax, Jason Brown or Reggie Jackson on drums and Derek DiCenzo on guitar. With its jaunty, Bud Powell-esque hooks, the most memorable track here is Fowser’s Ninety Five, a cut that originally appeared on the saxophonist’s brilliant 2010 collaboration with vibraphonist Behn Gillece; Monaco takes it in more of a vintage soul direction. Throughout these songs, Fowser’s misty, airy lines create a nifty balance with Monaco’s irrepressible intensity, whether on the Lonnie Smith-flavored Daddy Oh, the lickety-split shuffle Aglio e Olio, or the lurid, minor-key boudoir jazz of Indonesian Nights, which nails the kind of vibe Grover Washington Jr. was trying to do in the 80s but didn’t have the right arrangements for.
The endless parade of styles continues with a pretty bossa tune turned in a much darker direction with Monaco’s funereal timbres beneath Fowser’s bracing microtones, followed by what could be termed a B3 tone poem. Guest pianist Asako Itoh’s You Rock My World takes a familiar soul/funk groove and adds a terse, biting edge; there’s also a gospel number complete with church choir; the off-center, bustling Bull Years, which eventually smoothes out into a soul/blues shuffle; the carefree, wry It’s Been So Nice To Be With You and a scampering Jimmy Smith homage.
The second disc is just as eclectic and features a rotating cast of characters including guitarists Bruce Forman, Ted Quinlan and Robert Kraut, drummers Byron Landham, Vito Rezza, Louis Tsamous and Adam Nussbaum, saxophonist Donny McCaslin, trombonist Sarah Morrow and trumpeter Kenny Rampton. There’s even a Joey Defrancesco cameo (liner notes indicating who’s where would have been useful, at least in terms of giving credit where due). In general, this material is more funk-infused, with soulful, judiciously bluesy guitar (that Monaco could get such consistency out of so many players is impressive). Monaco’s rapidfire cascades and tidal chords set the tone on the opening number, Acid Wash; Rampton’s animated lines elevate the shuffling Backward Shack, the guitar throwing off some unexpected Chet Atkins lines. There are a couple of extended numbers here, both of them choice: the practically ten-minute, aptly titled Takin’ My Time, with its long launching pad of an organ crescendo, and the even longer Slow Down Sagg, where Monaco finally goes off into wild noise as it reaches critical mass. There’s also Booker T. Jones style soul, a couple of blues numbers, a jump blues and a couple of gospel tunes, all delivered with passion and virtuosity. Any fan of organ jazz who doesn’t know this guy is missing out: count this among the most enjoyable jazz releases of 2012, all 133 minutes of it.
Dutch avant garde composer/songwriter/filmmaker Pascal Plantinga has earned a worldwide following for his shapeshifting, genre-blending, category-defying work. Recent additions to his eclectic musical oevre span from the Okinawan-flavored exotica of his Bashofu/Yonaguni Shonkane single – a collaboration with enigmatic chanteuse Keiko Kina – to the atmospheric soundscapes of Promises of Pleasure, to this one, Even Angels Take Detours, a wry, witty, Jim Jarmusch-esque American travelogue done as an album/dvd combination that came out last year. Recorded in the spring of 2009 at the Stone, it’s not only a showcase for Plantinga’s puckish wit, but also the final live concert recording to feature the late, great New York drummer Dave Campbell. Here, Campbell fits into the electroacoustic mix with a seamlessly subtle, shuffling approach as Plantinga’s sonic film unwinds, part hip-hop, part ambient music, with jazzy flourishes and the occasional nod to current-day noir composers like Angelo Badalamenti. As with much of Plantinga’s work, the warmly analog feel of this vinyl record transcends any attempt to digitize it: to genuinely appreciate its surreal, encircling ambience, you have to put it on a turntable, not an ipod. In addition to Plantinga – on bass and vocals – and Campbell, the lineup onstage includes SoSaLa’s Sohrab Saadat Ladjevardi on tenor sax and Kurt Dahlke a.ka. Pyrolator on electronics.
Campbell kicks it off with a tongue-in-cheek military roll beat that he’ll bring back later, then the sequencer comes in along with a surreal torrent of faux hip-hop phrases punctuated by a vocoder. The shuffling, steamily funky (and funny) track two, I Don’t Even Pink features keening Dr. Dre synth tones giving way to a roaring loop – “The intervention of my shrink urges me to rethink – what does it feel like?” Plantinga muses. The group follows that with the ominous sonics of Je Ne Suis Pas Folle, the woozy but matter-of-fact existential meditation Not One Scratch and then the cadavre exquis vibe of Hit by My Mother, with its rapidfire samples and distantly menacing, allusively atmospheric chromatics underscoring its sarcastic, satirical humor.
The concert really hits a peak as the second side – the travelogue side – of the record kicks in, with the scampering Ryuichi Sakamoto-ish Learn to Speak Your Language. Bread Into Stone brings back the funk and some sardonically caustic commentary on conspicuous consumption. The unselfconsciously gorgeous, plaintive title track paints a trippy early 70s tableau fueled by Plantinga’s watery bass chords (that’s the hook from The Eton Rifles, by the Jam – intentional or not?) and a slowly crescendoing, casually poignant Ladjevardi solo. The concert winds up with the anxiously soaring Never Had a Sweater, Campbell anchoring its steady sweep as a series of sarcastic anti-rock quotes from decades past sweep through the picture. The crowd is obviously entertained; the musicians seem to be having a great time, and it’s often such a mishmash that it’s impossible to figure out who’s playing what: sit back and enjoy the show.
Over the past nine years the lineup of artsy, eclectic Israeli rockers the Idan Raichel Project has comprised a global cast of over ninety musicians ranging in age from sixteen to ninety-three, bandleader/keyboardist Raichel revealed at his sold-out show last night at the Town Hall. That’s a formula for success if your goal is to be fluent in every global style of music ever invented. What did this particular twelve-piece incarnation of the band not play last night? Music from China, the North Pole, and Jamaica (they didn’t do any reggae). They did just about everything else, something akin to another Project from another era – that one led by Alan Parsons – but with a considerably deeper immersion in Middle Eastern and African grooves. The concert started slowly and built momentum steadily, up to an explosive, darkly bracing Ethiopian dance driven by spiraling flute, trumpet and alto sax over a slinky triplet rhythm. By this point, half the crowd – on the young side, and at least fifty percent female – had moved to the aisles, dancing and waving their glowsticks.
Raichel is a terse, elegant player who usually leaves the exuberance to the band (for a look at his more pensive, exploratory side, keep an eye out for his tremendously good forthcoming collaboration with Malian desert blues guitar star Vieux Farka Toure). In the beginning of the set, global influences flitted in and out of pretty standard if classically-tinged piano-based pop songs. An Iranian tar lute riff, an Egyptian snakecharmer flute motif, Rio rhythms and fetching habibi vocals from the group’s two dynamic, versatile frontwomen all made their way up into and out of the mix as the band almost imperceptibly brought the energy up, eventually rollicking their way through a bouncily hypnotic Afrobeat tune (these folks could teach Vampire Weekend a thing or two about energy and soul).
As the show went on, the band left the straight-up rock behind and dove deeply into global grooves. One of the encores could have been a Yemen Blues Middle Eastern jam, with oud and spiraling ney flute; a couple of others vamped on a rolling Ethiopian beat as the group lept and danced over it. The most intense of the night’s many solos (this group keeps most of them brief and leaves you wanting more) was during the loudest song, a roaring rai rock tune straight out of the Rachid Taha playbook, the guitar player building methodically to a savage Dick Dale-style blast of tremolo-picking. Not all of this came across as dead-serious, either. One track began with the percussionist playing a calabash which was sitting in a tub of water: while it was obviously not intentional, the popping beats alternating with the sound of pouring water evoked a bathroom more than it did a riverbank.
Beyond becoming the most eclectic rocker on the planet, Raichel’s ultimate motive is promoting peace. Obviously he feels that it’s worth repeating the old shibboleth that if we left the planet to the musicians instead of the priests and the mullahs, there would be no wars. Leading by example, blending cultures onstage, he drove his message home with a wallop. Has this band ever done the summer concert tour, places like Coachella? They ought to.
The new album Nu World Trash by SoSaLa a.k.a. Iranian-American saxophonist Sohrab Saadat Ladjevardi and his brilliantly assembled ensemble is so eclectic and trippy that it defies description, a woozy blend of dub, Middle Eastern music and American jazz. Producer Martin Bisi expands his own inimitable vision with dark, Lee “Scratch” Perry-inspired psychedelic sonics as the group slips and slinks through grooves with roots in Morocco, Ethiopia, Iran, Jamaica, Japan and the south side of Chicago circa 1963. That’s just for starters.
The opening track is characteristic. Titled Ja-Jou-Ka, it’s ostensibly Moroccan, but it could also be Ethiopian, right down to the biting, insistent, minor-key riff and galloping triplet rhythm that emerges from A swirling vortex of low tonalities right before the song winds out with echoey sheets of guitar noise, Ladjevardi’s elegantly nebulous tenor sax lines managing to be wary and hopeful at the same time. Ladell McLin’s guitar and Piruz Partow’s electric tar lute combine for a distant Dick Dale surf edge on Nu Persian Flamenco, a catchy, chromatically-charged surf rock vamp with echoey spoken word lyrics by Ladjevardi. Classical Persian music is inseparable from poetry, so it’s no surprise that he’d want to add his own stream-of-consciousness hip-hop style: “Work like a dog, what for? I need something to cheer me up,” this clearly being it.
With a rather cruel juxtaposition between gentle guitar/flute sonics and samples of agitated crowd noise (and a crushing assault by the gestapo a little later on), Welcome New Iran looks forward to the day when the Arab Spring comes to the Persian world (it’s only a matter of time before it comes to the U.S., too!). A traditional song, Kohrasan begins with a pensive taqsim (improvisation) on the tar and then launches into a bouncy modern gypsy-jazz vamp: it seems to be an illustration of a fable. Vatan Kojai (Where Is My Country) morphs from a swaying, soaring rai vamp into a wailing guitar dub interlude, while Happy April Fool’s Day veers from off-kilter jazz, to Ethiopiques, to biting contrasts between McLin’s abrasive noise and Sylvain Leroux’s fula flute.
The onomatopoeic (say that three times fast) NY’s Sa-Si-Su-Se-So sets Massamba Diop’s hypnotic talking drums agains swirling sax effects and wah funk guitar over a hypnotic Afrobeat groove driven by bassist Damon Banks and drummer Swiss Chris. Sad Sake makes atmospheric acid jazz out of a Japanese pop theme; the album ends with the swaying, funky Everyday Blues, a gritty workingman’s lament: the guy starts every day with a coffee and ends it with a “small bottle of beer,” and he’s had enough (although a bigger beer might help). Eclectic enough for you?
Nick Moran’s second organ trio album, No Time Like Now is “not a Chicken Shack band” record, the jazz/funk guitarist asserts. It’s not that he doesn’t love classic B3 grooves, it’s just that he wants to be freed from the constraints of that idiom, which he makes absolutely clear right from the album’s opening track, a funky reinvention of Cream’s Strange Brew. Drummer Chris Benham pushes it along with a steady, somewhat restrained pulse as organist Brad Whiteley cascades and swirls with a similar terseness before they bring it way down for a relaxed, starry halfspeed guitar interlude. Moran’s bluesy bends, unclutted, clear tone and precise staccato reach back for a Memphis soul feel as much as they do to George Benson. As the album goes on, the group expands their palette to include soul, rock and a whole lot of funk.
The rest of the compositions are Moran originals. My Beautiful is a carefree bossa nova ballad given extra heft by Whiteley’s washes of sustain, and then an alternately smoky and spiraling solo before Moran takes an effortlessly cheery one of his own. The next cut, Intention is a slow, warmly catchy soul groove that wouldn’t be out of place in the early Grover Washington, Jr. songbook (a good soprano saxophonist would have a field day with this melody). Then they pick up the pace with the deep-fried southern funk of Slow Drive, Moran channeling vintage Larry Carlton circa 1976 with his agile pull-offs and coppery vibrato, segueing into the trickily rhythmic Wishful Thinking with its artful dynamic contrasts, subtly plaintive, crescendoing chords and then an off-center, Walter Becker-ish guitar solo.
Not everything here is as easygoing. The title track, a casually hopeful, warmly pulsing, nostalgic ballad, underscores the irony of Moran’s final conversation with a friend who died suddenly afterward. Say Hi to Paris is an aptly wry, funky, vintage Crusaders-style homage to the late New York blues singer and bandleader Frankie Paris, an irrepressible character who played pretty much every dive bar in Manhattan that had music 20 years ago. The Physicist Transformed, a biting, minor-key elegy for a friend who was a scientist by day, bluesman by night, builds from a Balkan-tinged circular riff, through suspensefully crescendoing nocturnal cinematics to a drum solo that stops just thisclose to crushing. And Natalya, inspired by Natalya Estemirova, the Chechen human rights activist murdered in 2009, maintains a stunned, brooding ambience, Moran stately and wistful against Whiteley’s eerie, funereal chords. The album closes with on an upbeat note with Renewal, a steady, purposeful clave tune lit up by Whiteley’s insistent volleys and Moran’s casually propulsive, loping single-note lines. The Nick Moran Trio plays the album release show for this one this coming Friday, March 9 with three sets starting at 7:30 PM at the Bar Next Door.
American String Conspiracy’s new album Help the Poor has pretty much something for everybody, if you like Americana roots music. Whether they’re playing bluegrass, or oldschool soul music, or blues, or rock, it’s a smartly produced, rich feast of good guitar from frontman Gary Keenan and brilliant, eclectic lead player Shu Nakamura. Longtime standouts on the always fertile New York roots music scene, their colleagues on this album include Ernie Vega on electric bass, Suzanne Davenport on violin and cello, and Charlie Shaw switching between drums and upright bass.
Keenan’s laid-back baritone kicks off the opening, title track (a witty original bluegrass tune, not the old blues song) with his former mates in the haunting, excellent Nashville gothic band Bobtown – Jen McDearman, Karen Dahlstrom and Katherine Etzel – on backing vocals. “Whether by the will of god or your maxed-out credit card, that could be you someday,” Keenan offers, a friendly rebuttal to those NYC subway posters discouraging passengers from handing over a buck or two to those in need.
The first of the rock songs is Never Too Late. Like the others, it’s got tasty layers of electric guitar and a spiky solo from Nakamura, and a nice instrumental out, everybody – violin, guitars and Shaky Dave Pollack’s harmonica – firing on all cylinders. Freddy’s King, a tribute to the great Texas blues guitarist, is a spot-on shuffle instrumental, Davenport’s stark, memorable solo followed by an exuberant Freddy K. seance by Nakamura, who really nails the style, going all the way up the fretboard with some joyously slashing tremolo-picking.
My Guitar is a successful detour into countrypolitan, while Wrong Road is straight-up country and pretty hilarious: it’s amazing the things people will do after too much Jim Beam and V8. Keenan’s mandolin lights up Cherry Pie, a salute to the kind of food that really hits the spot after smoking a little weed. Crawl, a slow, bitter rock ballad, has the women from Bobtown again, an ominous violin-driven outro and a starkly chiming, simple guitar lead over lush, jangly Telecaster. They go into country gospel with Little Hymn, then back to the secular stuff for Leave It Alone, another wryly funny song, this one for the smokers: “There’s far too many ways to get stoned – just stick with reefer, it’s a whole lot cheaper.” N.O. Blues, a biting, funky minor-key number, bitterly references the Katrina disaster. “Singing Nearer My God to Thee on the banks of Ponchartrain,” Keenan intones, with Trailer Radio’s Shannon Brown guesting on a verse. They mix country, Beatles and Tex-Mex into Maybe, a duet between Keenan and Brown, and echo that vibe more quietly on the slowly swaying ballad that closes the album. It’s yet another excellent, cross-pollinated hybrid to sprout up in the greenhouse of the New York country scene. American String Conspiracy are at 68 Jay St. Bar on Jan 4.
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