Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Concert Review: Steve Wynn at Lakeside Lounge, NYC 11/11/08

A characteristically fiery, exhilarating show by the Carl Yastrzemski of rock and his scorching band, this time with some unexpected special guests who were swept up in the maelstrom. From one show to the next, nobody takes more chances than Steve Wynn (which would make him more Freddy Lynn than Yaz – you’ll get the picture soon if you haven’t already), and on the rare occasion that he doesn’t land on his feet the effect is still adrenalizing. Steve Wynn & the Miracle Three never play the same song remotely the same way twice. Yet they are an extraordinarily tight band playing extraordinarily terse, lyrically-driven noir rock songs. There’s never been anyone like this and there probably won’t be again. Guitar duels are their speciality, Wynn and lead guitarist Jason Victor wrestling with the most evil tonalities they can conjure. This time they were joined by a violinist – who supplied most of the dueling with Victor – as well as the bass clarinetist and percussionist from an out-of-town group called After Hours on their two last songs.

 

The set mixed songs from Wynn’s latest cd Crossing Dragon Bridge with a few canonical earlier tunes. What was most apparent was how vastly superior this band’s rhythm section is compared to just about anybody else. Drummer (and Mrs. Steve Wynn) Linda Pitmon’s tom-tom rolls recalled Keith Moon, but with just enough restraint to give them some real menace, especially when she’d follow them with a dramatic, stormy ride across the cymbals. Bassist Dave DeCastro was at the top of his game, as smooth as he was aggressive: nobody plays more fluid hammer-ons, or for that matter more flat-out interesting basslines than that guy.

 

The band did the pensive new Manhattan Fault Line pretty much straight-up, leaving it to the violin to build the ambience. By contrast, another new one, Love Me Anyway was pure groove, Wynn and DeCastro in lockstep. The best of the new ones, Wait Til You Get to Know Me was Wynn at his best, a snidely menacing, minor-key noir cabaret number that he said perfectly capsulized the East Village. If you consider how much it’s become a pickup scene for clueless, unsophisticated girls from central Jersey, the song rings absolutely true. The slowly crescendoing, complex The Deep End gave Victor a chance to do a David Gilmour séance and add some magnificently beautiful, upper register shades before stomping on his repeater pedal and picking up the pace. The band also ran through a terse version of the Dream Syndicate classic That’s What You Always Say (how they manage to make that one sound fresh every time is a mystery) and then brought up the bass clarinet to add a Springsteenish tinge to the great backbeat-driven Van Morrison tribute Boston (which actually became something of a trainwreck, but even this band’s trainwrecks are worth watching).

 

They closed with a scorching version of the LA-Woman-on-hot-rails-to-hell anthem Amphetamine, Wynn firing the first shots of a savage if brief duel with Victor, and then 1000 Girl Mornings, a brutally pounding dismissal of what becomes a literally endless series of one-night stands: “Hey can I look in your eyes again,” is the mantra on the chorus, sung sarcastically from the girl’s point of view. 

 

Perhaps to compensate for the substantial amount of Wynn back catalog that’s currently out of print, there’s a vast amount of spectacularly good live stuff online. Wynn’s own site is currently streaming an amazing full-length concert with the Dragon Bridge Orchestra; there are also over forty (40) incredible shows featuring both Wynn solo and with the Dream Syndicate at archive.org. That’s not even counting what’s on youtube. And keep your ears peeled for an upcoming Steve Wynn appearance on NPR’s World Café on Nov 20.

 

In case you didn’t get the baseball references above, they relate to Wynn’s latest related group, the wonderfully nostalgic Baseball Project band he has with REM’s Peter Buck and the Young Fresh Fellows’ Scott McCaughey: if the Mets’ pathetic demise (and the Red Sox’ similar season ending) have left a bad taste in your mouth, their new cd will have you salivating for spring training.

November 12, 2008 Posted by | Live Events, Music, New York City, Reviews | , , , , | 2 Comments

Concert Review: Natacha Atlas at B.B. King’s, NYC 11/11/08

Early in the show, Natacha Atlas’ piano player Harvey Brough congratulated the crowd on the past week’s “historic event.” In the past few days, during a round of media interviews, “It was more exciting to talk about the election than it was to talk about the cd that just came out,” Atlas noted, more enthusiastically than sardonically. Perhaps feeding off the still-palpable excitement in the audience, she and her six-piece band delivered an often spellbinding mix of classic Lebanese film music, cabaret and what by any other word would qualify as psychedelia. In concert, Atlas comes across as witty, insatiably curious and quintessentially urbane, qualities all inherent in the former Transglobal Underground singer’s most recent work, particularly her excellent latest cd Ana Hina (I’m Here), reviewed here recently.

 

In addition to a marvelous three-piece pickup string section, a percussionist and Brough ably doubling on keys and acoustic rhythm guitar, the bassist had brought along a giant 8X12 cabinet, something you usually see only at big stadium shows. The reason soon became clear: since he was playing only by tapping on the frets, he needed all the amplification he could get. The band hadn’t brought along an accordionist, so he had a melodica perched precariously on the body of his bass, blowing into it through a long black plastic tube, often playing both instruments at once. Impressive, needless to say, especially considering that the tube was flopping all over the place when he wasn’t using it.

 

They began with several lush, haunting, sweepingly beautiful romantic songs much in the style of Fairuz, who’s clearly the main influence on Ana Hina. Onstage, Atlas displays considerably more lower register, and more bite, than she does in the studio, several times going into long melismatic passages that were very warmly received. They also ran through a bouncy noir cabaret number as well as a long, well over ten-minute, absolutely entrancing cover of Black Is the Color. Atlas and Brough explained that at their previous show on the West Coast, there had been some confusion over the origins of the song, and since Atlas had learned it from the Nina Simone version, she dedicated it to Obama, to a big round of applause. They delivered it slowly and hypnotically as a suite, the bassist providing a long, psychedelic chromatic harp solo in the middle before they brought it down to practically silence and then back up again where the violinist set it ablaze.

 

The highlight of the show was a soaring, plaintive version of Beny Ou Benak Eih, an iconic Hafez song that also appears on the new cd. They closed with a remake of an ancient, stately melody from the 1500’s whose original use was as a vocal exercise and a rousing Levantine dance number that finally provided Atlas, petite and inscrutable on her chair all night, with the opportunity to get up and bellydance and that predictably got the crowd going. They encored with an impressively dark rearrangement of the old Broadway standard What Lola Wants, What Lola Gets, the theme to the recent Nabil Ayouch film. The crowd, clearly more familiar with Atlas’ dance music catalog than the traditional material in the set tonight, was completely won over.

November 12, 2008 Posted by | Live Events, Music, New York City, Reviews | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Juaneco y Su Combo – Masters of Chicha Vol. 1

On May 2, 1977 five members of Peruvian chicha band Juaneco y Su Combo died in a plane crash. Compounding the tragedy was the fact that the band were at the time the country’s most popular practitioners of the style, a wildly psychedelic, danceable blend of Colombian cumbia, Brazilian and Latin dance music and American surf rock with reverb guitar and trebly electronic organ. Over 20 years later, small but influential Brooklyn label Barbes Records has made a full album of the group’s work available for the first time ever outside Peru. It’s about time.

 

During its initial heyday in the 70s, chicha – like bachata in the Dominican and jazz here in the US – was strictly the province of the lower classes, scorned by the elite. Because of this, Juaneco y Su Combo were a regional band in the purest sense of the word. They adopted the traditional dress of the Shipibo Indian majority of their native city of Pucallpa and frequently made use of imagery from Shipibo mythology in their lyrics (such as they were – most of their songs were instrumentals). Perhaps what’s most striking about the band’s success is that the various elements of their music were all foreign. The latin rhythm is anchored by traditional Cuban percussion; bandleader Juan Wong Popolizio traded in his accordion for a Farfisa organ, and lead guitarist Noe Fachin – known as El Brujo (The Wizard) was a fan of the Ventures and the Shadows. Like most other bands of the era, another major influence on the group’s music was drugs. Fachin – among those killed in the plane crash –  was a devotee of ayahuasca, a psychedelic common to the region. Perhaps as a result, this is the best high-velocity stoner music you’ll ever hear. As his nickname implies, Fachin had great speed on the fretboard, but his playing can be sloppy and sometimes either he or the band are noticeably out of tune. On much of the material here, all of them sound stoned, which only adds to the band’s woozy mystique. Like a lot of south-of-the-border music from the 70s, the overall sound is tinny, likely because much of this was recorded on the fly using low-budget gear. 

 

The cd’s best songs follow a formula common to salsa, two minor-key chords alternating on the verse and building to a big crescendo on the chorus which Fachin would typically make the max of. Un Shipibo en Espana (famously covered by Chicha Libre, Barbes Records’ owner Olivier Conan’s band and perhaps the best chicha band ever) is a prime example. The single best song on the cd – written by their late bassist Walter Dominguez – is La Patadita, a deviously murky, minor-key blend of surf and salsa. Fachin’s Vacilando con Ayahuasca (High on Ayahuasca) isn’t the hallucinatory sidelong suite you might expect, but a ripoff of the Ventures’ version of Caravan (a Duke Ellington tune: what a fun and unexpected game of telephone this turned out to be!). On the cd’s last cut, Recordando a Fachin (Remembering Fachin), his replacement does an enviable job of emulating his trademark frenetic, hanging-over-the-cliff style. This cd’s closest relative, in spirit anyway, is German film composer Manfred Hubler’s legendary 1969 Vampiros Lesbos soundtrack. Except that you can dance to it.

 

Barbes Records – who have a franchise on chicha music outside Peru – have also played a substantial role in building renewed interest in the style’s originators right where it originated, with the latest version of Juaneco y Su Combo (still fronted by original singer Wilindoro Cacique) currently one of the country’s hottest live acts. It’s probably only a matter of time before these songs start getting picked up by American surf bands (how’s that for irony?) One can only hope for continuing releases in the Masters of Chicha series; for now, several other bands, including Los Mirlos, Los Destellos and Los Diablos Rojos are included on Barbes’ seminal anthology The Roots of Chicha, released last year.

 

 

November 12, 2008 Posted by | Music, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 11/12/08

Counting down the top 666 songs of alltime one day at a time all the way to #1. Today’s is #622:

The Electric Light Orchestra – Boy Blue

Jeff Lynne didn’t write many political songs, but when he did he absolutely nailed them. In honor of all the veterans (we’re a day late on this), here’s a blazing, lushly orchestrated riff-rocker further reinforcing the fact that vets are invariably the most fervent antiwar activists. From the 1975 ELO album Eldorado, the best album you’ll ever find used in the dollar bins. And you might. Otherwise, here’s an mp3.

November 12, 2008 Posted by | Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment