Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Magos Herrera and Javier Limon Hold the Crowd Rapt in an Intimate Duo Show

 

Mexican singer Magos Herrera reaffirmed her presence as one of the most eclectically compelling singers in any idiom in an intimate duo performance with guitarist Javier Limon for media and a select group of friends at a Chelsea gallery Thursday night. Her previous album Mexico Azul celebrated the African roots of much of Mexican music and culture. Dawn, her new collaboration with Limon, she said, made the connection between Mexico and Spain seem “perfectly natural,” a rather brave assertion for someone whose career has advocated so strongly for the people of her native land. But it’s a quietly stunning move for her: throughout an all-too-brief, set, she and Limon enjoyed a casual chemistry but also an intense focus and commitment to finding the most subtle shades in the music.

Herrera sang in her signature, minutely jeweled contralto until finally going way up, further than you would expect someone with such command of her low register would be able to. Limon played sparingly and judiciously, letting his phrases breathe, matching the singer’s penchant for not wasting notes, which made his occasional flamencoesque flurry all the more intense. They opened the set with a syncopated tango of sorts, Herrera’s delivery managing to be both misty and disarmingly direct at once. Then they reinvented Skylark as a richly suspenseful, spaciously contemplative mood piece with hints of both flamenco and Andalucian music.

Throughout the rest of the set, Limon would sometimes shadow the vocals, following Herrera’s crescendoing, upward ascents with his own. On occasion, he’d light up a slowly swaying theme with a sputtering crescendo much in the way that Herrera would add gracefully scatting accents to bring a chorus to a gentle peak, singing in both Spanish and English. This approach maintained the flamenco influence without the cliches that so many acts who didn’t grow up with the music employ for over-the-top affect. They ended with a number that began with a rainy-day theme that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Sade catalog and then took it out almost as a march, with a series of hypnotically shifting vamps.

And speaking of Sade, there’s been a void where that singer once reigned as the queen of artsy, sophisticated romantic chanteuses. Which would give Herrera room to take over that role, if she wanted. Obviously, she might find that limiting: she’s a more subtle and diverse singer than Sade, and her interests run far beyond romantic balladry. But she’s got the torchy delivery, plaintiveness and sense of longing. What if Herrera – or someone like her – decided to take the Mexican bolero and reinvent it as American torch song? Wouldn’t it be cool if the default boudoir music of the west was a style refined and brought to its pinnacle by Mexicans? Forget about Obama’s lip service about immigration reform: there are an awful lot of places in this country where Mexican-Americans are under fire. What a pleasant and subtle way to fight back against all that repulsiveness – and to jumpstart the reconquista. Just a thought…

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April 19, 2014 Posted by | concert, gypsy music, jazz, latin music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, reggae music, review, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Magos Herrera’s Mexico Azul Reinvents Classic Film Music

Singer Magos Herrera’s latest effort Mexico Azul is a jazz (and occasionally jazz-pop) album first and foremost, using classic Mexican film themes from the 1940s through the 60s as a stepping-off point rather than trying to recapture the originals’ magically lo-fi yet towering ambience. Herrera’s unadorned, carefully modulated contralto is in full force here, yet she also shows off an impressively soaring upper register. This was obviously a labor of love for the chanteuse, who’s been outspoken about how this album is a celebration of the “Africanness” of Mexico and Mexican culture – an admirable goal, considering what a melting pot the country has been throughout history. The group behind her is first-class, with Luis Perdomo on piano, John Patitucci on bass, Alex Kautz on drums, Rogerio Boccato on percussion, Tim Hagans on trumpet and Adam Rogers (of Randy Brecker’s band) on guitars.

The opening track, Alvaro Carrillo’s Luz de Luna is much more terse than the lush ranchera original, with a spiky Rogers acoustic solo. Herrera’s version of Noche Criolla falls somewhere between the furtiveness of the original and the ecstatic Celia Cruz version, featuring more nicely slinky work from Rogers. Interestingly, Herrera’s version of Agustin Lara’s Azul is a lot more moody and expansive, Hagans’ occasional trumpet accents the only concession to the boisterousness of the original. Angelitos Negros, an orchestrated Pedro Infante bolero hit from the 1948 movie of the same name gets a smartly smoky treatment with Hagans mining that vein memorably. The airy, atmospheric intro to Alvaro Carrillo’s Seguire Mi Viaje’s leads into judiciously hushed clave jazz lowlit by Perdomo’s careful phrasing and an artfully tiptoeing Patitucci solo. It’s catchy and accessible without being the least bit cliched.

An original composition, Voz Antigua (A Mi Tierra) works an understatedly plaintive ambience and a gingerly shapeshifting piano groove. The cover of Lamento Jarocho distantly echoes the suspensefully pensive bounce of the Agustin Lara original, while another Alvaro Carrillo number, Que Sea Para Mi gets a gentle, nocturnal bossa bounce. Everybody from Javier Solis to Luis Miguel has covered Tres Palabras: Herrera and band reinvent it as a coyly understated romp, from the scatting on the intro to Hagans’ jauntily retro, bluesy muted solo. The most radical, and deliciously successful reinterpretation on the album, Puerto Rican composer Pedro Flores’ Obsesion is so slow that it’s creepy, Hagans lurking behind Perdomo and Rogers’ brooding, incisive lines. The album ends up with marvelously original take of Dos Gardenias, considerably darker and more suspenseful than the Antonio Machin tango from the 40s. This album works on a lot of levels, as jazz and also as pop music – the one thing this isn’t is nostalgia. For that you’ll have to go to youtube: many of the original versions of these songs are there.

July 22, 2011 Posted by | jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pistolera’s New Album: Catchy Yet Deep

Simple and catchy yet often profoundly poetic, New York janglerock-en-Español band Pistolera’s new album El Desierto y La Ciudad is divided up into an A-side and B-side. Without being polemical, frontwoman/guitarist Sandra Lilia Velasquez contemplates the situation facing immigrants in America, first literally tracing their steps in the desert, then their struggles (and their joy) in New York. Her viewpoint may be Mexican-American, but her songs are universal. The terse, edgy band alongside her includes Maria Elena on accordion and piano, Inca B. Satz on bass and Sebastian Guerrero on drums, with Cordero’s Ani Cordero taking over behind the kit on the hardest-rocking songs.

An often unspoken irony abounds here. It’s front and center on the album’s most confrontational number, the catchy reggaeton-influenced singalong Escucha (Listen). Who’s illegal, Velasquez wants to know. You, me and everybody else, it seems. “Who takes care of your kids? Who cooks your food?…The hypocrisy is killing me,” she sings, in Spanish. The fieriest song here, Todo Se Cae (Everything Falls Down) alludes to the 2008 economic collapse and the current depression; it’s a cautionary tale to seize the moment, hold onto what you have as the foundations are shaking. The bustling subway anthem Laberinto (Labyrinth) projects an unspoken unease – “welcome to the underground life” – but also celebrates a city where there are parks and beaches everywhere, and a train to take you there. And the swaying, reggae-tinged Ponle Frenos (Put on the Brakes) ponders when a hardworking woman, or man, can get some time alone – with an incessant “beep beep beep” chorus.

The “desert side” of the album sets up all this drama artfully: the pensive, syncopated ranchera-rock of Polvo, apprehensively evoking the vastness of the desert and all that it represents; the imaginatively dub-flavored title track, and the mournful diptych that winds up memorably with David Bailis’ potently elegaic, ringing lead guitar, the immigrant knowing that it’s time to leave, that everything good comes to an end. The albums ends with Floating, a pretty, ethereal acoustic anthem and the only English-language track here. With a hallucinatory, dusky vibe, it echoes the Julee Cruise song : “I could walk a hundred miles and still not get there,” Velasquez muses. Not only is this a great listen, this album ought to be mandatory in Spanish classes in American schools. Velasquez’s crystalline, subtly nuanced vocals are easy to understand, the tunes are fun to sing along to – and her lyrics pack a wallop. No doubt you’ll be seeing this on a lot of “best albums of the year” lists by the end of 2011. Pistolera plays the cd release show for this one on July 29 at around 9 at Drom, with excellent country/Brazilian band Nation Beat opening the night at 8. Tickets are ridiculously cheap at $10.

July 17, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 3/9/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Wednesday’s album is #692:

Patricia Vonne – Guitars and Castanets

Patricia Vonne is yet another great American songwriter who’s huge in Europe and lesser known here in the US (other than in her native state of Texas). With her signature full-throated wail, the Mexican-American rock siren has stood up for American Indian rights, immigrant rights and Amnesty International campaigns for the women who’ve disappeared in Juarez, Mexico. This 2005 album, her third full-length release, is characteristically diverse, with songs in both English and Spanish, a richly arranged, guitar-driven mix of rock anthems, ranchera ballads and Tex-Mex shuffles. Everything she’s ever released is excellent; we picked this one since it has her best song, the unselfconsciously wrenching, intense escape narrative Blood on the Tracks (a hubristic title, but Vonne has the muscle to back it up). Joe’s Gone Ridin’ is a tribute to Joe Ely; the clanging backbeat anthem Texas Burning was a big CMT video hit. The festive title track and Fiesta Sangria, along with the mournfully gripping norteno ballad Traeme Paz show off her grasp of traditional Mexican sounds; the anthemic Long Season sounds a lot like the BoDeans with a girl singer. There are also two stunningly catchy, deliciously layered guitar rockers, Lonesome Rider and Rebel Bride that sound like the Church transplanted to Austin. This one doesn’t seem to have made it to the sharelockers yet, but it’s still available at Vonne’s site.

March 9, 2011 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Alondra de la Parra Directs a Brilliantly Eclectic Performance at Lincoln Center

There’s a backstory here, and it’s an encouraging, even paradigm-shifting one. Conductor Alondra de la Parra and the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas’ new album Mi Alma Mexicana not only reached #1 on the Mexican classical charts, it also reached #2 on the pop charts there. Ironically, that may not be quite as extraordinary an achievement as it would have been ten years ago. But it is compelling evidence that even in the age of downloading, people are still willing to pay for quality. The album seeks to revive interest in pieces by Mexican orchestral composers from the past 150 years or so. Last night, de la Parra and the orchestra treated a sold-out Alice Tully Hall crowd to a handful, opening with Carlos Chavez’ Caballos de Vapor. De La Parra introduced it as “the horsepower suite,” a ballet whose original costumes were created by Diego Rivera. Rarely recorded or played in concert, it’s a richly dynamic piece that deserves to be vastly better known. The intricately bustling mechanics of the first movement grew to a sort of dance of the behemoths, and it was here where de la Parra’s emotional intelligence and meticulous approach really struck home: the crescendo could have become florid, but she wouldn’t let it go completely over the top. Was this supposed to be satirical, a cautionary tale about falling too deeply in love with the Industrial Revolution? Certainly the mournful intensity of the dance themes that followed – a brooding Mexican sandunga that brilliantly mimicked a guitar timbre, a troubled, languid, pulseless tango and a bolero that went from shadowy to almost sepulchral – could be interpreted as its aftereffects. The ensemble played singlemindedly, de la Parra always maintaining plenty of open space for the many brief solo spots, the orchestra parting the waters with split-second efficiency when the moment arrived.

Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait was a case of lyrics surpassing the quality of the music beneath. Actor Chris Noth (of Sex and the City fame/notoriety) gave Abraham Lincoln’s own words of warning and love for democracy the gravitas the orchestra couldn’t, although they did the best they could with what they had. De la Parra did the opposite of what she’d just done so well with the Chavez as they latched onto pretty much anything of even remote interest in this obviously hastily cobbled together, western movie-tinged, folk song-speckled tone poem by the Norman Rockwell of 20th century music.

The concluding piece, Jennifer Higdon’s Concerto for Orchestra was a showstopper, every bit as extraordinary as de la Parra hinted it would be. The conductor emphasized how this orchestra’s mission is to promote composers and soloists from the whole of North America, and sardonically noted the American composer’s mastery of “a form several composers have tried and done successfully, ha ha, some of them…” Percussive as the work is, it paired off terrifically with the Chavez. The first movement built to brisk, intense, percussive yet distantly suspenseful unison riffage; the second, seemingly a tribute to Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, paired off the basses and violins playfully as lushness and pleasing, Romantically tinged rondo themes made their appearance. Then the fun began, a series of motifs with a quiet nocturnal flair, some of them wryly swooping, moving through the orchestra, building to lush sostenuto brass passages that wouldn’t have been out of place in Brahms. The unselfconscious sense of fun returned in even fuller effect with the fourth movement and its long, gently unstoppable crescendo for percussion, timpani and kettledrums that owed more to Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix (Moby Dick and Machine Gun, specifically) than anything else. De la Parra held the careening polyrhythms tightly to the rails as they rattled through to a triumphant drum roll of a conclusion. The crowd reacted with the delirious enthusiasm of a rock audience: on their feet, they literally wouldn’t let the orchestra go, eventually rewarded for their strenuous efforts with Huapango, by José Pablo Moncayo Garcia, a playful, increasingly ornately arranged suite of Mexican folk songs and then Danzón No. 2 by Arturo Márquez, variations on a genuinely haunting, ballet-tinged, minor-key theme in the same vein as the well-known folk ballad La Llorona.

October 30, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jordi Savall Discovers the New World

Virtuoso viola da gamba player and early music maven Jordi Savall needs no introduction to fans of classical music: as a bandleader, soloist, researcher and all-around time traveler, he’s unearthed all sorts of fascinating medieval treasures from Spain to the Middle East. Now, he turns his sights on Latin America with his pioneering new album El Nuevo Mundo: Folias Criollas, a collaboration with Mexican early music adventurers Tembembe Ensamble Continuo, his choir La Capella Reial de Catalunya, Swiss-based ensemble Hesperion XXI and Catalan soprano and early music specialist Montserrat Figueras. Utilizing a museum’s worth of baroque-era guitars and ancient guitar-like instruments along with a chamber orchestra and lush vocal harmonies, Savall and his fellow travelers run through an eye-opening mix of recently rediscovered, little-known early music from Mexico and the Americas dating back as far as the seventeenth century.

As Savall somberly avers in the fascinating, extensive liner notes, all of this music was the soundtrack to genocide: the music of the conquistadors always took precedence over the sounds of the embattled indigenous peoples. Yet cross-pollination is everywhere, even on the earliest works here. Ironically, many of those who worked alongside the conquistadors were outcasts from Spanish society: Jews, heretics and also an element that was considered criminal (but whose only crime may have been running afoul of the Spanish crown). It is therefore unsurprising that they would be more likely to mingle with the locals and become familiar with their music. The conquistadors, predictably, disliked it to the extent they banned it, including at least one and maybe more of the pieces here. All of these are taken from ancient manuscripts, subject to improvisation as was the custom then, with occasional, additional lyrics by Patricio Hidalgo and Enrique Barona of Tembembe Ensamble.

The one-four-five chord progression is everywhere, particularly on the early Mexican son jarocho numbers. Other pieces are folk songs arranged with the ornate harmonies of 1700s Spanish pop opera. The two oldest pieces are a traditional Mexican waltz from around 1650, and an operatically-tinged, bouncy antiphon for chamber ensemble and guitars that may date back as far as 1732. There’s a risque Mexican folk song about “cuckolding the priest,” a metaphorically charged tribute to the joys of green chiles that got a 24-year-old woman tried and probably executed for singing it, and a strikingly complex, contrapuntal Mexican slave song celebrating a fiesta where “we will all be white people tonight.” A couple of seafaring ballads, an operatic lullaby, a richly textured, guitar-orchestra number from Colombia, a bouncy operatic Mexican hymn and pair of Peruvian songs which predate the cumbia revolution by about two hundred years round out the album. It’s a long, strange trip, and absolutely essential for latin music fans. It’s out now on Alia Vox  (distributed by Harmonia Mundi here in the US).

August 19, 2010 Posted by | classical music, folk music, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Lila Downs y la Misteriosa En Paris – Live a FIP

If you get one Lila Downs album, this is it. This isn’t safe, emasculated faux-exotica for curious yuppies: it’s a fiesta, and not always a happy one. Downs’ commitment to and passionate advocacy for a whole slew of Mexican folk styles – and the immigrants whose ancestors created them – has made her impossible to pigeonhole, with a defiantly individualistic streak. Recorded live on French radio last year, Downs sings with raw brass, grit and soul, backed by a terrific band with edge, bite and some stunningly imaginative arrangements – the most prominent instrument here is Celso Duarte’s concert harp. The sprawling group also includes Downs’ husband and longtime musical director Paul Cohen on tenor sax and clarinet, fiery forro specialist Rob Curto on accordion, the incisive Juancho Herrera (also of Claudia Acuña’s band) on guitars, Carlos Henderson on bass, Dana Leong on trombone, Yayo Serka on drums and Samuel Torres on percussion. And while there are plenty of folklorico numbers – the swaying accordion-driven song that opens the concert; a plaintive, mournful update of a Zapotec song, and a stunningly poignant, beautifully sung version of the traditional ballad La Llorona, the strongest songs here are the originals.

The stinging, Gil Scott-Heron inflected blues shuffle Minimum Wage – sung in English – makes a vivid tribute to the illegal immigrants that American businesses are only too happy to hire at a cut rate. The metaphorically loaded singalong anthem Justicia goes looking for justice everywhere, but there are places where it simply cannot be found:

[translated from the original Spanish]

I don’t see you in the High Command
I can’t find you in offices
Or in men in uniform
Or the fence at the border

And the understatedly scathing, ghostly, reggae-flavored anti-NAFTA broadside La Linea (The Line) imagines a medicine woman treating a child whose “skin has grown feathers” courtesy of untreated industrial waste from American border sweatshops. But once Downs has you in touch with reality, she gets the party started. There’s a festive, minor-key cumbia salute to the joy of getting stoned and eating good mole, a largely improvised party number from Veracruz with the harp and percussion rattling and plinking at full volume, and a long jam on Hava Nagila during the band intros before the encores. And the version of La Cucaracha here leaves no doubt as to what that song’s about, right down to a briefly woozy dub-flavored interlude. It’s out now on World Village Music.

May 30, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Trouble in Tribeca, Part One: Bad Reputation, Rana Santacruz and Pistolera at the 92YTribeca, NYC 1/8/10

Friday night was Trouble Worldwide night at the 92YTribeca, part of the annual booking agents’ convention with sets from a mix of the best Barbes bands along with a couple of ringers, Rana Santacruz and the Cuban Cowboys. The Snow’s frontman Pierre de Gaillande opened the night with his latest side project (this guy seems to always be in about five bands at once), Bad Reputation, whose raison d’etre is English versions of the songs of iconic, often bawdy French individualist Georges Brassens. Guillotinings and the Bastille aside, the French typically allow for a greater freedom of expression in song lyrics than has traditionally been the case here, so it was as striking as it was amusing to hear Gaillande deadpanning about “the nun who defrosts the penis of the amputee” in the ribald Don Juan. Guitarist Tony Jarvis lit up that one with some casually intense tremolo-picking, then switching to bass clarinet for most of the other numbers as the band gave them a swinging noir cabaret feel. Gaillande has obviously put a great deal of effort into making Brassens’ wordy, argotique narratives flow smoothly in English – and with rhymes! – and this paid off immensely in the curmudgeonly but sweet 1953 song Public Benches, the blithely cynical 95% of the Time (a hilarious tale of a woman who won’t settle for anything less than sex with love), the minor-key waltz Philistines (a tribute to teenage delinquency), the O. Henry-esque Princess and the Troubadour and the first song Brassens ever wrote, a defiant outsider anthem probably dating from 1940s. Bad Reputation’s debut cd is due out auspiciously on Barbes Records sometime this year.

Backed by a boisterous band including rhythm section, violin, accordion and banjo, Mexican songwriter Rana Santacruz delivered a wry, quirky set that brought a brisk Celtic edge to traditional Mexican folkloric styles. A characteristically tongue-in-cheek number, Noche de Perro reminisced about an affair gone sour, the howling of the dogs in the night a vivid reminder that “they were more faithful than you were.” They wrapped up a very well-received show with a punked out – or Pogued-out – cover of a Vicente Fernandez ranchera number and a drinking song.

In their micro-set, Pistolera sounded like the Mexican Go-Go’s with their playful, sunny, sweetly melodic janglepop. The songs – from their forthcoming second album which transplants New York to the desert – included a bouncy ranchera rocker about the New York subway, a reggae-flavored vacation song and the swinging, effervescent, minor-key Todos se Cai (Everybody Falls Down). Then they switched gears and proceeded to play as their alter ego, the children’s music group Moona Luna. 99% of the time, children’s music is smarmy, condescending and patronizing, obviously as a selling point for the yuppie moms who buy it regardless of the fact that they too were once young and hated that stuff. But just when it seemed that like every other children’s band, this group should be exiled to the lowest circle of hell, they played the most anti-parent song of the night, which goes something like this, in both Spanish and English:

I like to jump on the bed
I like to jump on the couch
I like to jump on the floor
More! More! More!

Pistolera frontwoman Sandra Lilia Velasquez’ two-year-old daughter inspired that one. Obviously, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Maybe someday the two can share a stage and do that together.

The second half of the show, with Chicha Libre, the Cuban Cowboys and Slavic Soul Party is reviewed here.

January 11, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Rupa & the April Fishes – Este Mundo

It’s hard to imagine a sexier album – or a smarter one – released this year. Over the course of fifteen first-class tracks – there’s not a single substandard song on this cd – Rupa & the April Fishes come off like a better-traveled Eleni Mandell backed by an acoustic Gogol Bordello. Alternating between wild gypsy dances, ska, noir cabaret, Mexican border ballads, Colombian folk, tango, klezmer and reggae, this is without question the most triumphantly multistylistic tour de force of 2009.

Frontwoman/guitarist/physician Rupa Marya is a Franco-American globetrotter of Indian ancestry. Whether singing in English, French or Spanish, her lyrics are as evocative as they are provocative (the album is a tribute to and defense of immigrants risking their lives around the world). Her breathy vocals are equally nuanced, as capable of conjuring a sultry late-night ambience as much as nonplussed outrage, backed by an acoustic rhythm section along with cello, trumpet, and accordion as well as horns and flute on several tracks. They stay in moody minor keys until the next-to-last track, a surprisingly breezy number combining a Mexican folk feel with reggae, a lament that could be told from an immigrant’s viewpoint…or just a woman missing a lover.

Before that, there’s a brief, haunting violin theme; a swinging noir tango with an incisive trumpet solo at the end; a playful, fun gypsy dance that goes out on a boomy bass solo; a dark, violin-driven reggae number; a gypsy-inflected, slinky ska tune; a defiant gypsy waltz with echoes of New York vintage latin revivalists las Rubias del Norte; a sad, mariachiesque trumpet tune; a dark Mexican shuffle; a scary, Middle-Eastern-inflected gypsy dance that builds from a stately hora-style intro; a jaunty, bluesy ragtime song with a big dixieland raveup at the end; and a bouncy cumbia featuring a characteristically intense rap interlude by the greatest English-language lyricist of our time, Boots Riley of Oakland hip-hop legends the Coup (who has an intriguing new collaboration with Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, Street Sweeper Social Club).

Part of this album is a great dance mix; what’s not danceable makes great makeout music. Socially aware, sometimes surreal and invariably inspired, this is one of the best albums of the year, yet another reason why we’re not going to finalize our Best Albums of 2009 list until the end of December. Rupa & the April Fishes play the Bell House along with another excellent, multistylistic, danceable band, Nation Beat on November 13 at 8 PM.

November 9, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: The Fourth Annual Main Squeeze Accordion Festival

Forget All Points West or Lolapalooza if it should ever get here again: diehard fans with sufficient stamina (and water supply- it was overcast but pretty hot most of the day over by the river) to hang in through all seven acts on the bill at Pier One on the Hudson were treated to what might be the year’s best single-day outdoor New York music festival. Considering how much of a comeback the small but mighty accordion has made over the years here in the US, there was a sense of defiance and triumph in the air.

The opening act, Musette Explosion is a tremendously good side project from accordionist Will Holshouser and guitarist Matt Munisteri – they do this gig a few times a year when there’s time, and given how much fun everybody onstage was having, it’s something of a surprise they don’t do it more often. Backed by bass saxophonist Scott Robinson, they ran through an alternately haunting and bouncy mix of swing-inflected French and Belgian instrumentals from mostly the 1930s and 40s. The highlight of the set, as usual, was Jo Privat’s eerie La Sorciere (The Witch), Munisteri weaving his way into a ferocious tremolo-picked solo on banjo. A Holshouser original, Chanson Pop built to a lushly plaintive, unaffectedly dramatic Baroque-inflected anthem. This group usually plays with a tuba, but Robinson made a great fit: blazing solos aren’t something you expect from a bass sax, but this guy delivered, particularly on the opening number, Gus Viseur’s swaying Swing Valse.

Mexican norteno band Suspenso del Norte were next, seemingly a project of the Javier family of Queens: father Pablo on guitar and lead vocals with his twelve-year-old son on button accordion along with a second guitar and rhythm section. What they play is essentially Mexican country music, with the same kind of swinging backbeat as what used to come out of Nashville before it became the hometown of lame pop-rock about fifteen years ago. Mixing popular hits along with originals, they connected with the small expat contingent who’d come out to see them, the powerfully built young accordionist supplying effortlessly fast, soulfully bubbling leads.

Hector Del Curto’s Eternal Tango Quintet took the dance vibe into intense, wrenchingly passionate territory. With Del Curto on bandoneon, Gustavo Casenave on piano, Pedro Giraudo on upright bass along with an inspired cellist and violinist, they mixed originals and classics, from a stately, haunting version of the traditional Argentinian tango El Choclo to a fast yet lush take of the Piazzolla classic Libertango. Another Piazzolla composition, Michaelangelo #17 bristled with stormy bandoneon and string flourishes; an original, Emancipacion built suspense with a martial beat and some vivid interplay between piano and bandoneon, a device that Del Curto employed very effectively and evocatively through the set’s brooding ebbs and aching swells.

The Main Squeeze Orchestra were next: being the pet project of Walter Kuhr, proprietor of the Main Squeeze accordion center on Essex St., this is an annual event for the all-female twelve-accordion group. It was a characteristically playful, tongue-in-cheek yet also virtuosic and fascinatingly arranged performance. They got the schlock out of the way first – no matter how much you polish a turd, there’s not much you can do with the Eurythmics or Michael Jackson. “This is a happy song about love,” announced one of the women, taking a turn on vocals on an oompah version of the Joy Division classic Love Will Tear Us Apart. They reinvented Misirlou as a tango and Hava Nagila as a hora, seguing into a happy, upbeat wedding dance. The Kinks’ Demon Alcohol was as amusingly over-the-top as usual; they closed with their deliciously deadpan, full-length version of Bohemian Rhapsody. Maybe if we get lucky they’ll do Freebird next year.

Italian composer/accordionist Roberto Cassan and classical guitarist John Muratore followed with a fascinating, cutting-edge program that spanned from a couple of swinging yet pensive Piazzolla compositions originally written for guitar and flute, to a darkly expansive instrumental by a contemporary Cuban composer, two rousing Italian tarantellas and a long opening number with echoes of both Celtic music and bluesy Hot Tuna-style improvisation.

The big hit of the festival was Liony Parra y la Mega Mafia Tipica, who absolutely slayed with a wildly danceable set of merengue. Parra delivered lightning-fast rivulets on his button accordion, sometimes trading off with the band’s excellent sax player, who matched him note for note on some pretty crazy trills. Along with a harmony singer,  they had a rhythm section including congas, cajon and bass drum along with a five-string bassist who stole the show, punching in booming chords to bring a phrase to a crescendo, adding eerie atonal accents, liquid arpeggios and even some laid-back, unpretentious two-handed tapping when things got really sick. They took their time working in with a long intro, just accordion and the drums, then the bass hit a tritone and they went flying. La Mega Mafia Tipica’s merengue is party music, first and foremost: they don’t sing much except on the choruses. This set had a bunch of deliriously hypnotic two-chord jams, bass behind the beat for a fat, seductive groove. They’d shake up the rhythm in places, accordion and sometimes the bass playing three on four for an extended vamp. The last song of the set had a trick ending that took pretty much everybody by surprise: of all the bands on the schedule, only la Mega Mafia Tipica got an encore because nobody wanted the party to stop.

That Slavic Soul Party accordionist Peter Stan and his four-piece backing band weren’t anticlimactic speaks for itself. Stan is something of the Balkan Rick Wakeman, blessed with unearthly speed and fond of playing a lot of notes. This time out he had his son Peter Jr. on chromatic button accordion, playing much like his dad, along with violin, synthesizer usually supplying the basslines and somewhat minimalist drums. By now, it was late, the rain was picking up and everybody except the growing line of dancers in front of the stage seemed pretty exhausted. But it was impossible to leave. Stan plays the kind of modern Balkan dance music you hear at Mehanata, a slick feel made slicker by the artificial bass sound of the synth. But the tunes are relentless and often haunting. He soloed his way from country to country, from Romanian gypsy to klezmer. The band mixed it up, from the happy, upbeat Serbian pop song Nishka Banya to the stately, sweepingly ornate original instrumental Gypsy Soul Fantasy to several edgy dance numbers sung by guest vocalist Bato the Yugo. It was an appropriately bracing way to wind up the evening. Watch this space for upcoming NYC dates by all these bands.

July 12, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment