Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Concert Review: Gyan Riley and Chicha Libre at the New York Guitar Festival 2/4/10

Last night’s theme was film scores. The New York Guitar Festival is more avant garde than rock (WNYC’s John Schaefer emceed) – this particular Merkin Hall bill started out intensely and virtuosically with a rare artist who’s every bit as good as his famous father (Gyan Riley is the son of avant titan Terry Riley), then got more mainstream with an emotionally rich, frequently very amusing pair of Chaplin soundtracks just completed by Chicha Libre.

Composers have been doing new scores for old silent films for decades (some of the most intriguing recent ones include Phillip Johnston’s improvisations for Page of Madness, and the Trakwerx soundtracks for Tarzan and a delicious DVD of Melies shorts). Riley chose to add sound to a series of brief paint-on-celluloid creations by Harry Smith (yup, the anthology guy), which came across as primitive if technically innovative stoner psychedelia. Ostensibly Smith’s soundtrack of choice had been Dizzie Gillespie; later, his wife suggested the Beatles. Playing solo, Riley opened with his best piece of the night, an unabashedly anguished, reverb-drenched tableau built on vivid Steve Ulrich-esque chromatics. From there, Riley impressed with a diverse mix of ambient Frippertronic-style sonics along with some searing bluesy rock crescendos evoking both Jeff Beck aggression and towering David Gilmour angst. Most of the time, Riley would be looping his licks with split-second precision so they’d echo somewhere in the background while he’d be adding yet another texture or harmony, often bending notes Jim Campilongo style with his fretboard rather than with his fingers or a whammy bar.

With their psychedelic Peruvian cumbias, Chicha Libre might seem the least likely fit for a Chaplin film. But like its closest relative, surf music, chicha (the intoxicating early 70s Peruvian blend of latin, surf and 60s American psychedelia) can be silly one moment, poignant and even haunting the next. Olivier Conan, the band’s frontman and cuatro player remarked pointedly before the show how much Chaplin’s populism echoed in their music, a point that resonated powerfully throughout the two fascinating suites they’d written for Payday (1922) and The Idle Class (1921). The Payday score was the more diverse of the two, a series of reverberating, infectiously catchy miniatures in the same vein as Manfred Hubler’s Vampyros Lesbos soundtrack as well as the woozily careening Electric Prunes classic Mass in F Minor. While Chicha Libre’s lead instrument is Josh Camp’s eerie, vintage Hohner Electrovox organ, as befits a guitar festival, Telecaster player Vincent Douglas got several extended solo passages to show off his command of just about every twangy noir guitar style ever invented, from spaghetti western to New York soundtrack noir to southwestern gothic. When the time came, Camp was there with his typical swirling attack, often using a wah pedal for even more of a psychedelic effect. The band followed the film to a split-second with the occasional crash from the percussionists, right through the triumphant conclusion where Chaplin manages to sidestep his suspicious wife with her ever-present rolling pin and escape with at least a little of what he’d earned on a hilariously slapstick construction site.

The Idle Class, a similarly redemptive film, was given two alternating themes, the first being the most traditionally cinematic of the night, the second eerily bouncing from minor to major and back again with echoes of the Simpsons theme (which the show’s producers just hired Chicha Libre to record last month for the cartoon’s 25th anniversary episode). Chaplin plays the roles of both the rich guy (happy movie theme) and the tramp (spooky minor) in the film, and since there’s less bouncing from set to set in this one the band got the chance to vamp out and judiciously add or subtract an idea or texture or two for a few minutes at a clip and the result was mesmerizing. It was also very funny when it had to be. Bits and pieces of vaguely familiar tunes flashed across the screen: a schlocky pop song from the 80s; a classical theme (Ravel?); finally, an earlier Chicha Libre original (a reworking of a Vivaldi theme, actually), Primavera en la Selva. They built it up triumphantly at the end to wind up in a blaze of shimmering, clanging psychedelic glory where Chaplin’s tramp finally gets to give the rich guy’s sinisterly hulking father a swift kick in the pants. The crowd of what seemed older, jaded new-music types roared their approval: the buzz was still in the air as they exited. Chicha may be dance music (and stoner music), but Chicha Libre definitely have a future in film scores if they want it.

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February 5, 2010 Posted by | concert, Film, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

El Grupo del Verano 2008! Chicha Libre Finally Puts Out a CD

This is the cultural artifact of the summer of 2008. It’s the one album released this year that you want to put on if you’re having a party and you want to get everyone’s attention (or impress everybody with your brilliant and eclectic taste): you’ll get plenty of “who’s that?”s. Readers of this space already know plenty about Chicha Libre’s intoxicatingly good live performances at Barbes throughout the past year: now, the party is available for takeout. On their debut cd, Sonido Amazonico, America’s best (and only) chicha band have revived the amazingly danceable, hypnotic, psychedelic sound that was popular in the slums of the Peruvian Andes thirty-five years ago, while adding their own inimitable vision and wit.

Chicha is what resulted when Peruvian bands first heard American surf and psychedelic rock and then added electric instruments, rock arrangements and Caribbean rhythms to their own sound. What Antibalas did with driving, horn-driven African groove music, what Dengue Fever is doing with deliciously psychedelic Cambodian pop, Chicha Libre is doing with chicha. When frontman/cuatro player Olivier Conan first heard the style, he was hooked, to the point where he found himself traveling to South America to track down as many original recordings as he could get his hands on, as well as the elusive musicians who created it. The result was the fascinating anthology The Roots of Chicha, released last year on his label, Barbes Records.

Chicha Libre’s debut mixes instrumentals and vocal numbers, originals as well as deviously crafted cover songs. While in most surf music the guitars carry the melody, in Chicha Libre’s music it’s usually keyboardist Josh Camp’s vintage Hohner Electrovox (a relic from the 70s which is basically an electronic organ with settings that mimic the sound of an accordion) which serves as the lead instrument. In addition to Conan, the rest of the band includes two percussionists, acoustic bass and Barbes co-owner Vincent Douglas playing reverb-drenched, surfy guitar. The result can be haunting, triumphant, celebratory or absolutely mesmerizing, often all in the same song. While just as in surf music, there’s occasional cheese in places, Chicha Libre thankfully tones it down as much as possible. The vocal numbers (in both Spanish and French) are the most overtly humorous songs on the album.

There are so many great songs here. The title track, a hypnotic yet danceable one-chord vamp that builds to a nasty Douglas solo, and Tres Pasajeros, an ominous train-ride theme written by Camp. The amusing Hungry Song plays with the macho posturing found in a lot of latin music. Their cover of the obscure El Borrachito (The Little Drunk Guy) has the narrator asking plaintively in Spanish, “Why are you making fun of me?”

They take the famous Ravel Pavane and chichafy it, breaking it down into dub reggae at one point, then the band starts chanting “pavane, pavane, pavane,” quiet and deadpan in the background while the guitar solos. Indian Summer tips its hat to Serge Gainsbourg in a big way, Conan and las Rubias del Norte frontwoman Allyssa Lamb doing spot-on early 70s ye-ye harmonies over a slinky spy theme. They also cover Hot Butter’s silly synth instrumental hit Popcorn with a sarcastic, punk edge: the Electrovox is out of tune on the highest registers, and there’s a silly bass solo. And then the band adds their own lyrics, a tribute to corn whiskey and weed. The album ends with its best song, a cover of what is probably composer Erik Satie’s signature work, Gnossienne #1 (you’ll recognize it from a million movie soundtracks). As simple as it is macabre, it’s also extremely difficult to play on the piano because Satie deliberately omitted the time signature, leaving the rhythm completely up to whoever’s playing it. Chicha Libre give it a slightly staggered tango pulse, making it as sexy as it is dark. What else is there to say – this is a great album, a must-own if you like psychedelia, right up there with the Vampiros Lesbos soundtrack and Mass in F Minor by the Electric Prunes. Five maduros con queso. The cd is available at better record stores, online and at shows. Chicha Libre play the cd release tonight at Drom at 10; Las Rubias del Norte open the show at 9.

April 4, 2008 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment