Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Concert Review: Mavrothi Kontanis at Barbes, Brooklyn NY 4/30/10

Seeing Mavrothi Kontanis at Barbes last night was a time warp back to a secret, revolutionary taverna in an Athens (or Istanbul) of the mind around 1936. Kontanis is an acknowledged virtuoso of the oud, an educator and the author of books on oud technique and is every bit the player you’d expect from someone with that background. The oud has been around forever and has an otherworldly resonance, a distant echo of the millions who’ve put their souls into the instrument over literally millennia. Alongside Kontanis’ soulful reverberation, voilinist Megan Gould and percussionist Timothy Quigley – who seems to be to Barbes what Willie Dixon was to Chess Records’ studio – added textures and lines that matched and then diverged, sometimes hypnotic, other times fiery and intense.

Much of the material they played was taken from Kontanis’ two 2008 cds (both ranked high on our list of best albums that year), notably an irresistibly woozy, sly version of the self-explanatory rembetiko ballad Ouzo. The trio opened with a segue of old songs from Athens and then Smyrna, Kontanis throwing the occasional sharp chord in among his fluid, snaky arabesque lines to raise the energy level, Gould firing off a solo that sizzled with trills at the top of the scale. Another Arabic-flavored one saw the two string players doubling each others’ lines with a casual rapport that bordered on the telepathic. Quigley put down his dumbek (goblet drum) and switched to the boomier riq frame drum on a rearrangement of a swaying, insistently psychedelic bouzouki song from around 1960 – “New for us is 1940,” Kontanis laughed. An audience request was ablaze with Kontanis’ tremolo picking and got even hotter when Gould went soaring over the melee; another rumbled along to a tricky 15/4 beat. Toward the end, they did a winsome number about a heartbroken drunk, finally wrapping up over an hour’s worth of music in a hypnotic, rattling blaze of oud chords, staccato violin and percussion. Plenty of tavernas around town have music but not like this. Mavrothi Kontanis has an intriguing residency coming up at 1:30 PM at the Silk Road exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History on May 9, 23 and 30; he’s back at Barbes on June 11 at 8.

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May 1, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The Jack Grace Band – Drinking Songs for Lovers

It’s surprising that nobody’s done this yet, and it’s a good thing that the Jack Grace Band did it instead of, say, Jimmy Buffett. The country crooner’s new album Drinking Songs for Lovers is party music for smart people, and it’s definitely the funnest album of the year so far. For Grace, whose previous album The Martini Cowboy was surprisingly dark and serious, most of this is a defiantly unapologetic return to the party vibe of his 2005 cd I Like It Wrong, but with more swing. Credit his better half, bass player Daria Grace, for joining in on a groove with their jazzy drummer Russ Meissner. Jack handles most of the guitar work, with Mike Neer on lapsteel, Bill Malchow on keys and longtime Johnny Cash pianist Earl Poole Ball guesting on a couple of tracks.

The songs portray a wide variety of of drunks – the crazy neighborhood guy you run into at the bodega on a beer run right before four AM, the guys at OTB, the serious dude who watches his roommate drink himself into a dangerous state. These guys treat drinking as a serious business, a necessary alternative to some unthinkable alternate universe. Hangovers are a big part of it, an occupational hazard: it’s a tough job and somebody’s got to do it. Starting first thing with Morning Margaritas, a bracingly Tex-Mex way to kick off the album, featuring the Broken Mariachi Horns (J. Walter Hawkes on trombone and Rob Henke on trumpet). If You’re Gonna Raise a Drunk is one of those songs that needed to be writtten – beyond offering some useful tips, it manages to stick in a litany of favorite drinks and favorite places to drink them. I Drank Too Much Again vividly captures the grim aftermath – the headache pounding behind the late afternoon sunglasses is visceral. Drinkin’ and Gamblin’ is a surprisingly hard-rocking minor key banjo tune; a rapidfire honkytonk lesson in trucker lingo, The Worst Truck Driver in the World is a teens update on the 1976 C.W. McCall rig-rock classic Convoy minus all the CB radio references.

Jack Grace’s baritone is one of the most soulful voices in New York music, but the best vocals here actually belong to Daria, perhaps singing the apprehensive minor-key blues Drank Yourself into a Corner while Jack was on a beer run. Drink a Little Hooch is the album’s second tribute to drunken gamblers: “Is there something I’ve been missing out on?” the perplexed narrator wants to know. The album winds up with the surreal, heavily hungover-sounding, Tom Waits-ish Haven’t Had a Birthday Now for Years, the blazing lapsteel rocker So Ugly, a merengue number (the guy at the bodega, remember?) called It Was a Really Bad Year and a depressive, authentically retro 60s style country ballad that recalls Jack’s previous albums.

This cd isn’t for everyone. Country music fans will love it, as will drinkers of most every stripe. Serious-minded folks might object to how cavalierly and completely nonjudgmentally chronic alcoholism is portrayed here, but fuck them. They’re no fun. The Jack Grace Band will be at SXSW for a bunch of gigs including a show on March 19 at 4:30 PM at the Saxon Pub with Earl Poole Ball from Johnny Cash’s band on piano. Their next NYC show is April 2 at 10 PM at Barbes.

March 13, 2010 Posted by | country music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Magges Live at Mehanata, NYC 1/12/08

[editor’s note: this is a half-assed review, although it’s the best we could do under the circumstances. Greek songwriters are known for their excellent lyrics and acerbic social commentary, and since we don’t have any native Greek speakers on staff, this review is limited to the band’s music. If any Greek speakers want to comment on the band here – in English, please – be our guest]

As a casual glance at just about any city courthouse will tell you, earlier generations of Americans were in love with everything Greek. The time has come for a new generation of Americans to discover what is perhaps Greece’s finest export: its music. A cynic might say that you can hear what Magges does in any taverna in Astoria on the weekend, but that’s not true. Magges is Greek slang for “bad guys,” which is something of an understatement: this band is positively evil. It was particularly appropriate to see them play at Gogol Bordello’s home base, since they share that band’s wild exuberance and unbridled passion. The place was packed, lots of people were dancing and taking shots from the ouzo bottles that the band very generously brings along to every show. Every New Yorker should experience this band at least once: they’re that good.

In a marathon set that went on for what seemed like hours, they played a wildly danceable mix of Greek vocal music from the past several decades, big major-key arenaesque ballads and long dance numbers burning with chromatic fire that went on for practically ten minutes apiece. Frontman Kyriakos “Chuck” Metaxas played exhilarating, fast runs on his electric bouzouki, accompanied by an acoustic bouzouki player, the ubiquitous Steve Antonakos on acoustic guitar, the also somewhat ubiquitious Susan Mitchell on violin as well as upright bass and percussion. And a belly dancer who got the crowd on their feet.

Metaxas sings in the somewhat dramatic, stagy style that’s characterized Greek pop for what seems forever. A lot of their songs utilize unorthodox time signatures and turn on the drop of a dime, but the band tackled the changes effortlessly. Even to foreign ears, several of the songs were recognizable, foremost among them a scorching, bouzouki-driven take of the original vocal song that Dick Dale appropriated and turned into Misirlou. Magges’ strongest suit is rembetiko, a dark, Middle Eastern-inflected style of stoner music that originated in the Greek underground resistance movement in the 1930s and 40s, and they played several of these. They also did their signature song, Ouzo, an upbeat, somewhat pastoral anthem that predictably got the crowd roaring. The only problem was the sound: the thud from the downstairs disco was painfully audible during quieter moments, and it was only then that Mitchell – one of the most captivating soloists around – could be heard. The chime and clang of the bouzoukis, guitar and bass was delicious, but Magges without Mitchell isn’t the same.

January 13, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments