Lucid Culture


Concert Review: Fishtank Ensemble at BAM Cafe, Brooklyn NY 1/9/10

Saturday night at BAM Cafe, Bay area gypsy music innovators Fishtank Ensemble brought the intensity to redline in seconds flat and kept it there for the duration of the show. Their cd Samurai Over Serbia (which received a rave review here and a spot on our 50 best albums of 2009 list) more than hinted that this would be the case, and the five-piece group didn’t disappoint. As expected, frontwoman Ursula Knudson seized the moment and led the charge, whether playing violin, using every octave of her vocal range or playing eerie washes of sound on her singing saw. Their first number, a fiery original titled Espagnolette saw her wind up her saw solo with some wild, stratospheric vocalese. With its tricky time signature, the Romanian gypsy song Shalaiman gave her another chance to go airborne and operatic, followed by a lightning, chromatically-fueled solo by accordionist Dan Cantrell.

A flamenco number saw guitarist Douglas Smolens introduce it with some strikingly terse, direct phrasing, which he’d return to with just a touch more firepower when it came time for him to solo as the band snapped their fingers in unison – and then Knudson went on the mic and brought the whirlwind intensity back. On the oldtimey blues staple After You’re Gone, she switched to banjo ukelele and gave it a winsome Blossom Dearie style treatment, after which upright bassist Djordje Stijepovic took an ostentatiously dexterous, amusing rockabilly solo, smacking the bass around as much as he was actually playing it. The group also scampered through a noir cabaret number featuring Knudson on violin, a gypsy dance written by Stijepovic bristling with unexpected dynamic shifts, a breezy take on the Transylvanian gypsy standard Chika Chika, and a playfully gypsified cover of Ring of Fire that Knudson sat out. It was too slow for her, she said – and then the band took it seemingly quadruplespeed at the end. The impressively diverse crowd, a mix of locals and fans from the burgeoning New York gypsy scene, were stunned. Watch this space for return NYC dates.

January 13, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Fishtank Ensemble – Samurai over Serbia

This is the last thing you want to have playing if you’re trying to fall asleep. It’s pure adrenaline: there hasn’t been anything this viscerally exciting playing around here since Ivo Papasov’s new one came over the transom. It’s a safe guess that listening to this cd burns calories. Fishtank Ensemble’s shtick is that they add Asian spice to gypsy music, primarily via Mike Penny’s shamisen, a Japanese lute with a brittle, slightly more piercing tone than a koto. The band’s not-so-secret weapon is violinist/chanteuse Ursula Knudson, whose ability to project all the way to the top of her spectacular range is nothing short of exhilarating. Rachelle Garniez fans will notice a similarity, particularly on the jazzier numbers. 


The cd kicks off with the fast traditional gypsy dance, Saraiman, Knudson adding passionate vocals with some rapidfire vibrato. The second cut, Turkish March takes a familiar Mozart piece back to its roots at an extremely entertaining, lickety-split clip. Knudson adds a sprightly ragtime feel to the gypsy swing number Tchavo. Face the Dragon features its composer, violinist Fabrice Martinez trading off atmospheric sheets of sound with Penny’s spiky shamisen and a nifty little bass solo by upright bassist Djordje Stijepovic. A homage to Paco de Lucia written by guitarist Douglas Smolens, Gitanos Californeros sets a frenetic gypsy violin chart against smoldering flamenco guitars, Knudson upping the dramatic ante as the piece builds. Spirit Prison, a first-person, tongue-in-cheek account of life in the loony bins comes across as a hybrid of Carol Lipnik phantasmagoria matched to the purist oldtimey ragtime charm of the Moonlighters. Nice upper-register singing saw solo from Knudson too! They follow it with the eerie, shape-shifting Fraima, originally performed by Opa Cupa.


The Kurt Weill song Youkali is a showcase for Knudson in legit mode, followed by the whirling traditional dance Ezraoul, fueled by the raw intensity of Martinez’ violomba. After the the swinging pulse of Mehum Mato, the title track blasts along with a firestorm of fretwork from the shamisen and the violins, with the rest of the band eventually joining the melee: Dick Dale or a similarly talented surf guitarist would have a field day with this. The cd winds up with the Extremely Large Congenial Romanian, by accordionist Aaron Seeman, more singing saw and vocalese from Knudson, and a bonus track, Yasaburo Bushi, a ferocious Japanese folksong arrangement by Penny. Listen to this all the way through – this is a long cd, many of the songs clocking in at a good seven minutes – and then try breathing lightly. Impossible. A lock for our Best Albums of 2009 list at the end of the year.  

April 20, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment