Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The 20 Best Concerts in New York in 2009

Of all our year-end best-of lists (the 100 Best Songs of 2009 and 50 Best Albums of 2009 included), this is our favorite, because it’s the most individual (everybody has a different list) and it’s closest to our raison d’etre, live music in New York. Last year’s was difficult enough to narrow down to twenty; this year’s is criminally short. We could have put up a top 100 concerts list and it would be five times as good. 

This was the year of the Beast – Small Beast at the Delancey, New York’s most exciting weekly rock event. We caught onto this slowly – the concert series ran for about a month before we discovered it – but when we did we were there almost every week. Occasionally someone will ask, since you have a music blog, why don’t you start booking shows? With Small Beast, there’s no need: it’s your weekly chance to discover the edgiest, smartest rock-ish talent from Gotham and across the globe. You’ll see a lot of those shows on this list.

Yet 2009 was a weird year for us – running a New York live music blog and not being in town much of the time made it problematic, to say the least. Week after week, we watched from a distance, enviously as half the city got to see stuff we never did. In August, the Brooklyn What did a killer triple bill with Palmyra Delran’s garage band and amazing latin ska-punk-gypsy rockers Escarioka at Trash Bar, but we weren’t there. The second night of the Gypsy Tabor Festival just a few weeks later looked like a great time, but we missed that one too. As the year winds down and we finally (hopefully!) start to reap the rewards of a whole lot of hard work, it appears, pending some absolutely transcendent show exploding onto the radar, that this is it for our Best Shows of 09 list. Needless to say, we can’t wait for 2010.

Since any attempt to rank these shows in any kind of order would be an exercise in futility, we just listed them as they happened:

The Brooklyn What at Fat Baby, 1/15/09 – since we’d just reviewed a couple of their shows in the fall of 08, we didn’t even review this one, fearing overkill. But on what was the coldest night of the winter up to that point, they packed the club and burned through a characteristically fun, ferocious set, maybe fueled by the knowledge that one of their idols, Ron Asheton, had left us.

Kerry Kennedy at Rose Bar, 1/21/09 – the noir chanteuse was at the absolute top of her game as quietly resilient siren and southwestern gothic bandleader.

Paul Wallfisch and Larkin Grimm at Small Beast at the Delancey, 4/9/09 – the Botanica frontman (who books Small Beast) turned in a typically fiery set, followed by the avant-chanteuse who battled and finally lashed out at a crowd of clueless yuppie puppies who just didn’t get what the show was all about.

Kotorino at Pete’s Candy Store, 4/13/09 – the quietly multistylistic, gypsyish band filled the place on a Monday night and kept the crowd riveted as they all switched instruments, beats and genres over and over.

The New Collisions at Arlene’s, 4/23/09 – Boston’s best new band blazed through an early 80s inflected set of edgy powerpop.

Paul Wallfisch, the Ulrich-Ziegler Duo and McGinty and White at Small Beast at the Delancey, 4/23/09 – after Wallfisch had set the tone for the night, Big Lazy’s Steve Ulrich and Pink Noise’s Itamar Ziegler played hypnotic, macabre guitar soundscapes followed by the ferociously lyrical retro 60s chamber pop of Joe McGinty and Ward White.

The American String Quartet playing Irving Fine and Robert Sirota’s Triptych at Bargemusic, 4/26/09 – a sinister ride through works by one of the leading lights of the 1950s avant garde followed by a haunting, intense performance of contemporary composer Sirota’s 9/11 suite.

Paul Wallfisch, Vera Beren’s Gothic Chamber Blues Ensemble, Spottiswoode and Steve Wynn at Small Beast at the Delancey, 4/30/09 – after Wallfisch got the night started, Beren roared and scorched her way through a pummeling, macabre set. Then Spottiswoode impressed with a subtle set of nocturnes, setting the stage for Wynn, playing together with his friend and ex-lead guitarist Chris Brokaw for the first time in several years, a feast of swirling, otherworldly guitar overtones.

The Friggs and the Chrome Cranks at Santos Party House, 5/8/09 – a triumphant return for the popular 90s garage girl rockers followed by the equally triumphant, reinvigorated, snarling sonic attack of another one of NYC’s best bands of the 90s.

The French Exit at Local 269, 5/13/09 – NYC’s best new dark rockers playing one of their first shows as a four-piece, rich with reverb, tersely incisive piano, haunting vocals and defiant lyricism.

Chicha Libre on the Rocks Off Concert Cruise Boat, 5/15/09 – definitely the best party of the year that we were party to, a swaying excursion through psychedelic, surfy cumbia music, past and present.

Paul Wallfisch, Darren Gaines & the Key Party and Alice Texas at Small Beast at the Delancey, 6/4/09 – Wallfisch kicked it off, Gaines and a stripped-down trio impressed with gutter-poet, Lou Reed/Tom Waits style rock and then Alice Texas turned in a swirling, incandescent, gently assaultive show that reminded how much we miss Tonic, the club where she used to play before it was torn down t0 put up plastic luxury condos.

Paul Wallfisch, Marni Rice and the Snow at Small Beast at the Delancey, 6/22/09 – another Wallfisch night, this one featuring the great LES accordionist/chanteuse/cabaret scholar and then Pierre de Gaillande’s clever, haunting art-r0ck crew.

Ian Hunter at Rockefeller Park, 6/24/09 – the former Mott the Hoople frontman, at age 70, has simply never written, played, or sung better. This show was a real revelation.

Daniel Bernstein at Sidewalk, 7/9/09 – the underground songwriter/lyricist/tunesmith casually burned through one haunting, haunted, ridiculously catchy tune after another.

Randi Russo and the Oxygen Ponies at the Saltmines, 7/10/09 – another haunting show opened with the absolute master of the outsider anthem, who did double duty playing in Paul Megna’s equally dark, intense, lyrical indie band.

The Main Squeeze Accordion Festival: Musette Explosion, Suspenso del Norte, Hector Del Curto’s Eternal Tango Quintet, the Main Squeeze Orchestra, Roberto Cassan and John Munatore, Liony Parra y la Mega Mafia Tipica and Peter Stan at Pier One, 7/11/09 – squeezebox heaven.

Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble and the Dave Brubeck Quartet at Damrosch Park, 8/5/09 – cutting-edge Middle Eastern-inflected jazz followed by one of the great ones, undiminished and still inventive at 89.

Jenifer Jackson at Rockwood Music Hall, 11/19/09 – the panstylistic rock goddess played several good New York shows this past year, but this one with Matt Kanelos on piano and glockenspiel and Billy Doughty on drums and melodica was pure transcendence.

Carol Lipnik, Bonfire Madigan, Rachelle Garniez, Vera Beren’s Gothic Chamber Blues Ensemble and McGinty and White at Small Beast at the Delancey, 11/23/09 – what seems at this point to be the single best show of the year (if only because it’s the most recent one on the list) matched Lipnik’s phantasmagoria to Madigan’s equally artful chamber pop, Garniez’ irresistible charisma and ferocity, Beren’s contralto classical punk assault and then Ward White took over where the sirens had been and sang what could have been his best show ever.

December 3, 2009 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble and the Dave Brubek Quartet with Simon Shaheen at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, 8/5/09

In their New York debut, Iraqi-American trumpeter/composer Amir ElSaffar’s seventeen-piece Middle Eastern jazz orchestra the Two Rivers Ensemble were nothing short of transcendent. Since music in the Middle East goes back so many millennia, most attempts at melding jazz with music from the region have come out of the jazz arena. This particular ensemble comes at it from the opposite direction, layering a feast of tonalities from both hemispheres with the occasional jazzy flourish over a slinky, Levantine-style snakecharmer groove, at times evoking Mingus in their most darkly lush moments. The music was as hypnotic as it was otherworldly beautiful. ElSaffar began the show on santoor (a hammered zither that sounds almost identical to a kanun) before moving to trumpet and eventually vocals. The full orchestra, with trumpet, santoor, alto and baritone saxes, ney flute, trombone, guitar, upright bass, drums, percussion, vibraphone, kamancheh (spike fiddle), oud, lute and piano would come together as they reached a swell, but frequently there would be just a couple or small handful of musicians playing off each other intricately over the beat.

The first of their long pieces, which could be something of a suite, was a stately rollercoaster ride of dynamics, moving up and then down again with solos from bari sax and trumpet with starkly beautiful piano accents, fading down to the bass solo that would eventually start the next composition. That one had an even more otherworldly feel, caught somewhere in limbo between major and minor but resolving to neither, lit up by a gorgeous oud solo played against the beat and another by the guitarist, moving from the Levant to gently incisive, staccato blues. Guest vocalist Gaida – a pioneer and a star in her own right – contributed heartfelt, shimmering vocalese on a couple of the latter pieces, the last – a fanfare and the night’s most overtly jazzy number – in tandem with ElSaffar. Considering how fascinating the solo spots were, it would hardly be fair to single out only a few of the players, but it was also impossible to keep up with ElSaffar’s band intros at the end to figure out who was playing what. Of those, Michael Ibrahim’s straightforward ney flute and practically macabre zurna (Turkish oboe) playing, Vijay Iyer‘s wirewalking piano work and ElSaffar’s own microtonal trumpet were especially captivating. ElSaffar also has an intriguing project, Salaam, with his sister Dena – their auspicious new album comes out August 11, watch this space for a review. And just for the record, this is the culture that Dick Cheney, in his insatiable greed for oil, wanted to destroy.

Dave Brubeck is 89, so he can do whatever he wants. Yet the jazz piano icon remains as deviously shapeshifting and fascinating as ever. He and his quartet had just been in Washington where there’d been an Ellington festival going on, and since Duke is Brubeck’s hero they took a stab at Take the A Train and reinvented it with characteristic passion and nuance. As usual, they messed with the time signature – a couple of particularly poignant 6/8 passages led by the piano – when bassist Michael Moore wasn’t pushing it along with a growling, hypnotic power, or when alto player Bobby Militello wasn’t giving it a warm, sailing vibe. After they’d run through the head the last time, Brubeck added a cleverly playful little fugue between the left and right hands. Brubeck has always been more about substance and innovation than flash, so if he’s lost some speed, it hardly makes a difference: the swing, the ideas, the timing and the voicings are as vital as ever.

Swanee River got a similar treatment, shifting subtly from poignancy to exuberance, Militello leading the charge. It’s a Raggy Waltz was similarly, warmly expansive, Brubeck pulling out the hooks and then reassembling them, drawing in his bandmates when everything was back together. This group has been a Lincoln Center Out of Doors institution for over a decade, and among their notable concerts are a handful of collaborations with the extraordinary Armenian oud player George Mgrdichian. It was no surprise, then to see the equally extraordinary oudist/violinist/composer Simon Shaheen join them for a couple of numbers. He played oud on the first, a murky, atmospheric tune that didn’t really come together, and it didn’t help that Militello stepped all over him before finally realizing that he’d overswung, finally taking a seat after all that exertion. They closed with a spirited Take Five, Shaheen adding subtle textures and harmonies on violin in tandem with the sax. How they manage to keep that one fresh after all these decades is testament to both the song and the quality of the crew that played it last night.

August 6, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments