Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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.

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

Concert Review: Rev. Billy and the Life After Shopping Gospel Choir at Highline Ballroom, NYC 4/18/10

Residents of Iceland aren’t the only people in the western world waking up to see their hometowns drenched in a sinister coat of dust: go to West Virginia, where Massey Energy blasts the tops off mountains to get the coal inside (it’s cheaper than going undergound to get it). Having led the fight against the Disneyfication of New York and pushed back a Walmart invasion of Gotham, Rev. Billy has turned his focus on the fight to preserve the mountaintop ecosystem of Appalachia, currently threatened by stripmining. The Reverend, his titanic 25-piece gospel choir and first-rate band make their point with a mixture of old-fashioned fire-and-brimstone preaching, a lot of good jokes and a mammoth sound. Sunday afternoon at Highline Ballroom choir director James Solomon Benn led the group onto the stage as pianist Rick Ulfik, bassist Nathan Stevens and drummer Eric Johnson pulsed along on an expertly ecstatic, shuffling gospel groove and then launched into a hymn to the joys of New York neighborhood life. “My imagination is not for sale! My neighborhood is not for sale!” went part of the refrain, a triumphant tribute to the successful fight to keep Walmart from moving in and destroying every small business in New York as it has everywhere else.

Like the Clash, their songs are catchy, and they all have a message. “Standing up for public space!” a soaring, funky, in-your-face minor-key number declared. “There’s a mountain in my lobby, at JP Morgan Chase!” a bearded member of the choir announced (it’s their current theme song – where most of the other big banks bailed out of financing stripmining after the 2008 stock market crash, JP Morgan Chase jumped right in). The group’s polyphony is imaginative and exciting, to say the least – when you have 25 voices shifting in sections, it’s impossible not to pay attention, and this group works that to the fullest extent possible. A latin gospel number featuring the potent, powerful voices of Sr. Laura Newman and another member of the choir, Jessica, was “dedicated to raising a child right – I mean left,” winked Rev. Billy, a swipe at conspicuously consumptive yuppie parenting. A trio came out of the choir and led the voices in a sad, plaintive country waltz spiced with banjo and ukelele: “There’s a cancer in the promised land.”

Newman took center stage again with a joyous, rousingly optimistic original gospel number she’d written: “Your children will climb back to the sky,” the chorus declared with a defiant optimism. Rev. Billy and guest speaker Bo Webb also provided plenty of information on the nefarious deeds of Massey Energy (they clearcut and then burn tons of valuable West Virginia hardwood rather than recycling or even trying to sell it!), energizing the crowd with a Christian existentialist activist message as grounded in philosophy as it is in real life (Rev. Billy AKA Bill Talen has a deep resume in serious theatre, in addition to being “jailed over 50 times” as his website gleefully proclaims). “The reason why Earth First scares people is that we always think of Earth as the Other,” he explained. But it was here first – and will be here long after we will if we can’t put a stop to the processes feeding global warming (the band did a song about that too and it was as arresting as the rest of the set). At the end, after two solid hours of insight and amazing harmonies, the choir left the way they came in, through the audience, singing as they went. Rev. Billy makes the Highline his home when he’s not building little mountains in the lobbies of Chase banks – watch this space for future concerts.

April 23, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 3/10/10

The best 666 songs of alltime countdown continues every day, all the way to #1. Wednesday’s song is #141:

Midnight Oil – Put Down That Weapon

The great Australian art-rockers at their most concisely epic, from Diesel and Dust, 1988, Jim Moginie’s ominous organ anchoring the anthem. “And it happens to be an emergency.”

March 10, 2010 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 2/12/10

The best 666 songs of alltime countdown continues every day, all the way to #1. Friday’s song is #167:

Elvis Costello – Peace in Our Time

Written at the height of the Falklands War, this 6/8 broadside namechecks Neville Chambelain while condemning both Maggie and Ronnie for bringing the world one step closer to Armageddon. The lyric is one of Costello’s best; the production on the album version from 1985’s vastly underrated Goodbye Cruel World is ridiculously, completely wrong, so look for a live version like the solo one in the title above (Paris, November 1983 is transcendent if you can find it).

February 11, 2010 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 9/11/09

Every day, our top 666 songs of alltime countdown gets one step closer to #1. This being 9/11, today’s song looks at one lesson we should have learned from the atrocity. It’s #320 on the list:

Elgin Movement – Freedom Tower

This oldtimey trio – with Jerome O’Brien of the Dog Show on upright bass and Jake Engel on chromatic harp – was a short-lived side project of the great New York Americana songwriter and blues guitarist Lenny Molotov. This song was inspired by plans to replace the World Trade Center: as he tells it, the Freedom Tower is actually a giant prison. Unreleased, and bootlegs don’t seem to have surfaced, although Molotov has a long-awaited new album due out most likely in early 2010.

September 11, 2009 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 8/3/09

Every day, our top 666 songs of alltime countdown gets one step closer to #1. Typically we do a lot more than this here – we’re currently working feverishly updating this month’s  NYC concert calendar. In the meantime, Monday’s song is #359:

The Byrds – The Times They Are a-Changing

Just imagine for a second how much more amazing Dylan would have been if instead of the Band, he’d had the Byrds playing behind him. “Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command.” No, they weren’t, actually – many of them would grow up to vote for people like Bill Clinton and Dick Cheney. Still, you gotta love the sentiment. The best album you’ll find this on is The Byrds Play Dylan reissue compilation from 1999.

August 3, 2009 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The Asylum Street Spankers – What? And Give Up Show Business?

In case you don’t get the reference, the album title is the punchline of an old vaudeville joke: the guy shovels shit, gets the short end of the stick every time, really has nothing to do with what’s happening onstage, but he just can’t quit the job. This sequence of tracks taken from their stagy, vaudevillian series of shows last year at the Barrow Street Theatre captures the band at the absolute peak of their consistently hilarious, raucous, virtuosic powers. In a lot of ways the Asylum Street Spankers are sort of the Dead Kennedys of oldtimey music, fearlessly aware, politically spot-on and funny as hell, especially in a live setting. This sprawling two-cd set intersperses several skits among a grand total of 25 songs. Smoking pot figures heavily in a number of them; sex is abundant, and there’s also one about beer. In other words, this is a party album guaranteed to clear the room of tight-assed yuppies and young Republicans in seconds flat.

Trying to choose which song is funniest is not easy. Everybody will get a kick out of their acoustic cover of the Black Flag hardcore classic TV Party, updated with contemporary references to emphasize the fact that the trendoids vegging out to Adult Swim or the Daily Show are no cooler than the bozos in the original, glued to Hill Street Blues. My Baby in the CIA is blackly funny, offhandedly managing to mention every CIA-sponsored coup against a democratically elected government around the world over the past half-century. The Medley of Burned-Out Songs, designed to placate rabid fans who can’t wait til the band plays their favorite, overplayed number is something that more bands should do. There’s also Christina Marrs’ deadpan Hawaiian swing number Pakalolo Baby, sounding something like the Moonlighters on good weed (or Pakalolo, for all the Hawaiian speakers out there). Winning the War on Drugs takes a quizzical, red-eyed view of prohibition, posing the logical question of why, if there’s a war on, are drugs so easy to find (My Baby in the CIA has the answer). The most technically dazzling number of them all is the medley My Favorite Records, kicking off with an absolutely perfect acoustic evocation of Black Sabbath, moving to Zep, Marrs eventually bringing down the house with her choice. And then they work a complicated contrapuntal vocal vamp to a crescendo where they replicate the sound of a stuck record without missing a beat.

Most of the skits are also funny, especially the Gig from Hell which any musician who’s spent any time on the road can relate to: not enough inputs for all the vocals, a stage that smells like vomit, the house manager trying to rip off the band like he did the one before…the list goes on and on. There’s also some remarkably straight-up and soulful blues and ragtime here too. The show finally ends with a full-length version of one of the heretofore Burned-Out Songs, the well-loved Stick Magnetic Ribbons on Your SUV (this having been recorded during the waning days of the Bush regime, there’s an undercurrent of righteous wrath just fractions of an inch below many of the jokes). The Asylum Street Spankers play the Bell House on May 19 with oldtimey/delta blues siren Mamie Minch opening the night auspiciously at 8:30 or so.

May 18, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Song of the Day 2/21/09

Every day, our top 666 songs of alltime countdown gets one step closer to #1. Today’s song is #522:

Bob Dylan – Masters of War.

As with the Beatles (see #526), when we inherited the embryonic version of the list from our predecessor e-zine, it contained a whole slew of Dylan that we deleted to make room for more obscure acts that you’d probably never discover anywhere else but here. But this one we had to keep: “And I’ll stand over your grave til I’m sure that you’re dead.” For Dick Cheney and all of his collaborators. MP3s are everywhere too. If you want a cover, see if you can track down a bootleg of the jazz version done by Erica Smith & the 99 Cent Dreams (it’s in 5/4 time!).

February 21, 2009 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment