Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Rocking the World with John Koprowski

Singer John Koprowski’s Five Years That Rocked the World, 1964-1969 is the rare cabaret show that’s both family-friendly and edgy. That may seem like the world’s biggest oxymoron, but Koprowski (abetted by musical director and perennial MAC awardwinner Tracy Stark) has put together a somewhat stagy revue that tells the story of the Sixties via an informative, sometimes predictable but often counterintuitive mix of rock and pop songs from the era (and a little afterward, if you count the Kinks and the Grateful Dead). It’s a rock show for cabaret rooms at this point: with some work, it would have legs on Broadway, as last night’s performance at the Laurie Beechman Theatre more than hinted. Eric Michael Gillett’s direction keeps the show moving along briskly: between songs or medleys, Koprowski’s narration comes across in the style of a low-key, friendly AM disc jockey with a casually encyclopedic, historical awareness of oldies rock that transcends the trivia usually associated with those songs.

This isn’t some anonymous pit band phoning in Abba covers for the umpteenth time, either: Stark, a luminous pianist, strikes an imaginative balance between the hippie inspiration of the originals and an artsy, frequently harder-rocking edge. Eclectic guitar virtuoso Peter Calo and the incomparable Susan Mitchell on violin bring serious downtown cred, backed by a rhythm section of Owen Yost on bass and Donna Kelly on drums along with Wendy Russsell and Cindy Green on vocals. Koprowski projects a friendly, knowing I-was-there vibe: a comedic explanation for why he’s able to remember it comes around when he explains how much of his friends’ time and energy was consumed by the ever-present search for drugs (a subject that he tackles deftly and then deflects, something that parents will appreciate).

There are some transcendent moments here. Russell and Green give Koprowski a lurid backdrop to eerily explode out of with a gimlet-eyed menace on an absolutely chilling, gothic reinterpretation of Creedence’s Bad Moon Rising. Mitchell’s sizzling gypsy-blues solo on a Hendrix-inspired All Along the Watchtower (which Calo caps off with a surreally savage one of his own) is worth the price of admission alone. Mitchell and Calo also unearth the rustic country song beneath Arlo Guthrie’s Coming Into Los Angeles, then segue effortlessly into the Byrds’ Fifth Dimension (that band, along with Dylan, is an obvious favorite here). Koprowski’s strongest moment, a bitterly declamatory take on Phil Ochs’ I Feel Like I’m Fixing to Die Rag, is again set up by Green and Russell, this time with deadpan cruelty, a potent evocation of the antiwar struggle, not to mention the sheer body count of the Vietnam War. The nascent gay liberation movement is also addressed via a winking version of the Kinks’ Lola. Among the rest of the songs, including hits by the Mamas and the Papas, Country Joe and the Fish, the Jefferson Airplane and the Beatles (a spot-on version of Revolution lit up by Calo’s overdriven guitar against Stark’s warm, flowing chordlets, and a less successful version of With a Little Help from My Friends), the only dud is America, a shaggy-dog story from the Paul Simon songbook that comes across as something like a Pinataland outtake.

Koprowski is funny, humble and sings the songs in context, something that a younger singer might not be able to pull off so effortlessly. But to a millennial generation raised on autotune and American Idol (and their long-suffering parents), it couldn’t hurt to bolster Koprowski’s vocals, which are those of a survivor, dents and all. Consider: the people who wrote these songs were all in their twenties. To relegate Green – a versatile, tremendously compelling talent – to the occasional harmony is a mistake (was she a last-minute addition to the cast?). Likewise, the show would benefit from considerably more time in the spotlight from Russell: her quietly crescendoing lead vocal on Janis Ian’s plea for racial harmony, Society’s Child, is unselfconsciously poignant. Obviously, with shows like these in their early stages, rehearsals all too often are limited, but since so many of the original versions of these songs featured all sorts of vocal harmonies, the opportunies that the presence of Russell and Green – and Stark as well – offer are tantalizing, and with a little work could be every bit as compelling as the instrumentation. With a little more help from his friends, Koprowski could take this to a much bigger stage.

May 3, 2012 Posted by | concert, drama, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Nova Philharmonic and Paul Joseph Take Third-Stream to the Next Level

Isn’t it amazing how there are so many incredible classical and jazz performances in New York, just a stone’s throw off the beaten path? Last night at Good Shepherd-Faith Church in the Lincoln Center complex was a perfect example, where the Nova Philharmonic teamed up with violinist/composer Gregor Huebner and the Paul Joseph Quartet for a characteristically genre-smashing good time. First on the agenda was Huebner’s own absolutely haunting Ground Zero (from his New York Suite), a tone poem that gave him the opportunity to play while casually circling the audience, conductor Dong-Hyun Kim leading the string orchestra onstage through its chilling, gently keening and then subsiding microtones. The work eventually reached a chilling crescendo with Huebner’s horror-stricken staccato attack against a brooding, dissociative backdrop. As an evocation of the anguish of 9/11, it’s powerfully evocative, more of a look back from a distance than Robert Sirota’s manic-then-bereaved Triptych or Julia Wolfe’s terror-fueled, recently released Big Beautiful Dark & Scary.

The ensemble shifted to warmer, more consonantly enveloping territory with Joel Mandelbaum’s The Past Is Now, a trio of May Sarton poems set to music and delivered with highwire intensity by soprano Kathryn Wieckhorst: in the church’s echoey acoustics, her sheer crystalline power equated to the force of a choir over the lushness of the strings. Mandelbaum’s attention to the rather elegaic lyrical content was both poignant and witty, notably in a furtive, metaphorically-charged passage marking the trail of some nocturnal varmints who’d vanished by daybreak, leaving only their pawprints in the snow. Huebner then rejoined the group for his Concerto con Violin Latino, a bracing, rhythmically-charged suite juxtaposing guajira, bembe and tango themes that began with an anxious, Piazzola-esque sweep and majesty and then romped through the tropics before reverting to a staccato intensity that revisited the angst of the opening piece.

Throughout the performance, Kim’s meticulousness was matched by the ensemble, perhaps most noticeably on the concluding suite, Mozart’s Eine Kliene Nachtmusik. How does one rescue this old standby from the world of credit card commercials and NPR lead-ins? This group’s answer was to dig in and amp it up. And they had to, because this particular performance was billed as a duel of sorts with pianist Paul Joseph and his Quartet – Susan Mitchell on violin, Edgar Mills on bass and Mike Corn on drums – who played their own jazz versions of each of Mozart’s four movements: first the orchestra would play one, then Joseph and crew would come up with a response. Much as it might have been tempting to make hard bop out of it, Joseph did the right thing with a jaunty, ragtime-inflected approach worthy of Dave Brubeck. They swung the opening allegro with gusto, turning the Romanza into bossa nova and the minuet into a jazz waltz. To call what they did eye-opening is an understatement: the strength and irresistible catchiness of Mozart’s melody became even more apparent as they turned a Venetian courtly dance into a blithely bouncy jazz-pop anthem that would be perfectly at home in the Egberto Gismonti songbook. Whenever the glittery attractiveness of the piano threatened to saturate the mix with sugar, Mitchell was there in a split-second with stark, assertive cadenzas and a razor-sharp, slithery legato to add edge and bite. They turned the concluding rondo into a samba, making it as much of a round rhythmically as musically, Mills and Mitchell trading off the tune while Joseph and Corn paired off on an increasingly animated series of percussive jousts that the orchestra finally lept into, completely unexpectedly, and wound out in a joyous crescendo. The audience exploded with a standing ovation. Watch this space for upcoming New York area dates for the Nova Philharmonic and the Paul Joseph Quartet.

March 31, 2012 Posted by | classical music, concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

After Ten Years, Ninth House Finally Record Their Masterpiece

Long-running New York rockers Ninth House have been through as many incarnations as David Bowie or Madonna. Over the last decade, they’ve played ornate goth-tinged art-rock, straight-up punk, rockabilly, and even went through a brief jamband phase. Their new album 11 Cemetery & Western Classics finds them digging deep into frontman/bassist Mark Sinnis’ signature Nashville gothic songwriting style, and they’ve never sounded better: track for track, this is the best thing they’ve ever done. It’s a welcome return to the hard-hitting, stripped-down sound they first mined as a three-piece over ten years ago, with the added advantage of now having former Gotham Four frontman Keith Otten on guitar. He’s the best lead player you’ve never heard of, ripping through one intense, fire-and-brimstone solo after another, yet also just as likely to toss off a tongue-in-cheek rockabilly riff or poignant, plaintive washes of sound if a song calls for it, over the rumble and swing of Sinnis and drummer Francis Xavier.

They kick it off angry and bitter with Fifteen Miles to Hell’s Gate – “From New York City, the one that drags me into a hole,” Sinnis rages in between Otten’s alternately sparse and anguished leads. The relentless, doomed, pulsing Funeral for Your Mind features one of the most spine-tingling solos on any rock record this year; the fatalistic, tango-inflected Fallible Friend has a trumpet section that adds a spaghetti western feel, Otten’s savage, sardonic guitar a perfect complement to Sinnis’ cynical lyric. Otten’s countrypolitan guitar blends warmly with Susan Mitchell’s rustic, pastoral violin on the swinging Nashville gothic anthem The Room Filled Beyond Your Door, while When the Light Blinds and You Die takes a gospel melody and imbues it with suspenseful Steve Wynn-style psychedelic atmospherics.

A couple of tracks here date from the band’s landmark 2000 album Swim in the Silence. The Head on the Door-era Cure-style pop of Down Beneath is more swinging and carefree than the original, while Your Past May Come Back to Haunt Me, a genuine classic the first time around, trades lush 80s ambience for a raw, wounded intensity.

The album also includes a couple of covers: Lost Highway owes more to the Psychedelic Furs than it does Hank Williams, Mitchell adding unexpected flair with her violin, while guest pianist Matt Dundas gives a honkytonk edge to the Social Distortion-style stomp of Johnny Cash’s Blue Train. The album ends on a high note – as high a note as a song this morbid can hit, anyway – with the chaotic, sprawling country ballad 100 Years from Now, Sinnis announcing that when his time is up, he wants to be buried with a bottle of whiskey. Ninth House play the cd release show for this one on Sept 24 at midnight at UC 87 Lounge, 87 Ludlow St. between Delancey and Broome with free admission before 11.

September 7, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Last True Small Beast?

Botanica frontman Paul Wallfisch, creator of the Small Beast concert series at the Delancey – New York’s most cutting-edge, exciting and important rock event – played his final set at the club Monday night, since he’s moving to host another Small Beast in Dortmund, Germany. Sharing a characteristically rich bill with Wallfisch were ”cemetery and western” crooner Mark Sinnis, cello rockers Blues in Space and Wallfisch’s longtime co-conspirator Little Annie Bandez.

All of these acts get a lot of ink here. Sinnis played a terse duo show on acoustic guitar, backed by the reliably extraordinary Susan Mitchell on gypsy-tinged violin. His trademark Nashville gothic material went over as well with the crowd gathered at the bar as the blast of air conditioning flowing from the back of the upstairs space did. The two mixed up creepily quiet and more upbeat songs from Sinnis’ new album The Night’s Last Tomorrow along with older ones like the hypnotic, vintage Carl Perkins-flavored That’s Why I Won’t Love You.

Blues in Space featured composer/frontman Rubin Kodheli playing electric cello, accompanied by eight-string guitar and drums. Hearing their swirling, chromatically charged, metal-spiced instrumentals up close (the band set up on the floor in front of the stage) was like being inside a cyclotron, witnessing the dawn and decay of one new element after another. And yet the compositions were lushly melodic, especially an unselfconsciously catchy new one which was basically just a good pop song arranged for dark chamber-rock trio. Kodheli fretted afterward that he wanted to take special care not to sound “bombastic,” something he shouldn’t worry about. A little bombast actually wouldn’t have hurt.

After Blues in Space, Wallfisch made the long wait for his set worthwhile. Small Beast is his baby, and as much passion as he put into it, it obviously wasn’t easy to let it go. As much as he didn’t hold back – the guy is one of the most charismatic frontmen in any style of music – he also didn’t go over the top, letting his songs speak for themselves. And they spoke volumes: his glimmering solo piano arrangement of the Paul Bowles poem Etiquette, and his closing number, Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man, equal parts seduction and anguish. “One and a half years, it seems like a lifetime ago,” he mused, which makes sense: in that short span of time, Small Beast in its own way took its place in the history of music in New York alongside CBGB, Minton’s and Carnegie Hall.

In between, Little Annie joined him for flickering, torchy, regret-steeped versions of Jacques Brel’s If You Go Away (interrupted by a posse of drunken tourists barreling down the stairs and past the stage, oblivious to the moment), the reliably amusing anti-trendoid anthem Cutesy Bootsies, a genuinely wrenching requiem for a suicide titled Dear John, and an apt encore of It Was a Very Good Year. Annie is reliably hilarious; tonight she was just as preoccupied. And who can blame her (she goes on tour with Baby Dee in late summer/early fall).

As for the future of Small Beast, the Delancey’s Dana McDonald has committed her ongoing support (she’s no dummy – being known for running a club that books smart music is always a plus, no matter how much more moronic the world of corporate and indie rock gets). Vera Beren – a rare bandleader who can match Wallfisch pound for pound in terms of charisma – hosts next week’s Beast on July 12, featuring her band along with ambient, minimalist synth goths Sullen Serenade and ornate, artsy Italian/New York 80s-style goth band the Spiritual Bat.

July 7, 2010 Posted by | concert, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Mark Sinnis – The Night’s Last Tomorrow

On the cover of his third solo album, Mark Sinnis, frontman of dark rockers Ninth House stands with his back to the camera, staring into a glaring New York sunset from a rooftop somewhere in Queens. The picture captures the subtext here far less subtly than Sinnis’ songs do: this is a requiem for lost time, lost hopes and by implication a lost time and place. It is a classic of gothic Americana. Richly and masterfully produced, electric guitars, strings, keyboards, lapsteel and accordion weave their way tersely into and out of the mix behind Sinnis’ remarkably nuanced baritone. Sinnis has been a good singer for a long time – he is an extraordinary one here, going down low for Leonard Cohen murk or reaching for Johnny Cash irony. If Ian Curtis had been an American, and he’d lived, he might sound like Sinnis does on this album.

The title track sets the tone for what’s to come, a slow, swaying, sad requiem, Sara Landeau’s sparse tremolo guitar mingling with Lenny Molotov’s lapsteel and Annette Kudrak’s plaintive accordion. It’s utterly hypnotic. The centerpiece of the album, or one of them anyway, is 15 Miles to Hell’s Gate, classic country done chamber goth style:

Fifteen miles to Hell’s Gate
And I’m a thousand miles from home
From New York City

The one that dragged me into a hole
I’m in my own purgatory
Where I pay for my sins each day
And I pay dearly
While my youth slowly slips away

He picks it up a little on the second verse. It’s gently and masterfully orchestrated.

Originally released on Ninth House’s 2000 album Swim in the Silence, the version of Your Past May Come Back to Haunt Me [#290 on our 666 Best Songs of Alltime list – Ed.] recasts the song as slow, Leonard Cohen-esque country sway, Sinnis’ pitchblende vocals quite a change from his usual roar when Ninth House plays it live. Fallible Friend, a catalog of failure and deceit, goes for a dusky southwestern feel capped by Ninth House guitarist Keith Otten’s perfecly minimalist fills. An understatedly desperate account of a drunk driver just trying to get home in one piece, Follow the Line takes on a hallucinatory, wee hours feel with Kudrak’s swirling accordion front and center – when Sinnis finally cuts loose and belts on the second verse, she’s there to calm him down. The Fever (not the Peggy Lee standard) could be a John Lennon song, a bitter metaphorically charged tale of alienation and rebellion.

Of the other originals here, wobbling funeral parlor organ makes the perfect final touch on the brooding Skeletons. Scars is gospel as the Velvet Underground might have done it, Out of Reach transformed from its original electric menace to haunting death-chamber pop with Ninth House keyboardist Matt Dundas’ piano and stark cello from star New York string multistylist Susan Mitchell. There’s also the ghoulish country shuffle In Harmony, the uncharacteristically sunny Quiet Change, and the album’s last song, a death-fixated, quite possibly sarcastic gospel clapalong. The covers are also terrifically inventive: Nine While Nine captures the song’s grim grey tube train platform ambience far better than Sisters of Mercy ever did, Otten perfectly nailing the menace of the song’s simple hook; St. James Infirmary rips the deathmask off the song’s inner goth, lapsteel pairing off warily against tense piano; and Gloomy Sunday gets a new final verse from Sinnis, who leaves not the slightest doubt as to what that one’s about.

Sinnis’ first solo album Into an Unhidden Future was a treat for Ninth House fans, a diverse, often radically rearranged acoustic mix of hits and rarities. His second, A Southern Tale was more country-oriented and surprisingly more upbeat. This is the best of them, in fact arguably the best thing that Sinnis has ever recorded. Mark Sinnis plays Otto’s on May 16 at 11, with a date at Small Beast at the Delancey coming up in July.

May 13, 2010 Posted by | country music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Concert Review: Mark Sinnis at the Slipper Room, NYC 4/18/10

Mark Sinnis, frontman of Nashville gothic rockers Ninth House plays his solo acoustic show at least as frequently, maybe more than he does with his band. Celebrating the release of his third solo cd, The Night’s Last Tomorrow, he held the goth night crowd at the Slipper Room rapt Sunday night with his most energetic solo performance in a long time. Most recently, he’d been mining a quietly creepy, Leonard Cohen-esque, minimalist style. This time out, backed only by extraordinary string player Susan Mitchell – doubling on electric violin and electric cello – he alternated between a stygian croon and an unleashed roar, his acoustic guitar amped almost to the point of distortion. Still, the show maintained the same kind of nuance of his most recent acoustic gigs – it’s not often that you see a guy who plays with a band as loud as Ninth House projecting gently with a laid-back, black velvet Johnny Cash style delivery.

Fifteen Miles to Hell’s Gate, the opener, is a furious stomp when done by the band, a not-so-subtle swipe at a no-longer-edgy New York where the fashion-centric shallowness of indie rock overshadows the real thing. This one downplayed the local angle, an elegy for dashed hopes and dreams. Mitchell’s gracefully descending violin gave the offhandedly dismissive Your Past May Come Back to Haunt Me considerable added poignancy; their version of Saint James Infirmary unleashed the song’s inner goth, culminating in a flurry of Balkan violin madness. Another new one, Fallible Friend, a catalog of disillusionments, flipped the script with a trick ending; the gospel-tinged That’s Why I Won’t Love You became more of a backwoods funeral, Mitchell again adding white-knuckle intensity. She switched to cello for a macabre janglerock version of the once-banned classic Gloomy Sunday. They encored with the Ninth House concert favorite Follow the Line, a characteristically passionate tribute to drinking and driving, “poison” becoming “whiskey” as Sinnis let the word slip out, Freudian style, on the second verse. Watch this space for a review of the album, his best solo effort to date.

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

Concert Review: Ninth House at Otto’s, NYC 1/9/10

By a quarter to eleven, the world’s most inept rockabilly band is finishing up. The bass player can’t figure out the chords to Mystery Train. But they have an excuse: they’re in high school.

Ninth House take the stage minus their keyboardist, but with the reliably intense Susan Mitchell on viola. Rightaway she finds her spot and holds it down, playing eerie washes of sound, doubling the vocal line, foreshadowing it or establishing a harmony since guitarist Keith Otten – the best six-string player this band’s ever had-  is wailing with a casually savage Jimmy Page-gone-terse vibe. They open with a new one, Fifteen Miles to Hell’s Gate, galloping along a la vintage Social Distortion. “Fifteen miles to Hell’s Gate, from New York City, the one that drags me into a hole,” roars bassist/singer Mark Sinnis in his sinister baritone.

They usually open with Long Stray Whim and its blast of guitar fury, but this time they play it second. Mitchell brings an eerie bluesiness to her solo and Otten follows her, even eerier. They should be at odds with the defiant, major-key triumph of the melody but they’re not.

Another new one, Funeral for Your Mind is a brutal anthem. Drummer Francis Xavier rides the toms to drive the chorus home, hard. When the time comes, another paint-peeling Otten guitar solo over Mitchell’s stark ambience.

Injury Home is a noir cabaret blues, and Mitchell takes the lead, giving it an oldtimey feel; they follow that with the catchy, poppy, swaying, mid-80s Cure-ish Down Beneath.

“That song is about dying. This song is about dying too,” Sinnis tells the packed house. And then launches into a fast country shuffle. “Death is your friend, in harmony.” The crowd loves it. They want more and they get it.

“Here’s another song about dying.”  This is a brand new one, “A world premiere,” as Sinnis cynically puts it. More pounding post-Social Distortion punkabilly. The guy wants to be buried “in a suit of black, with a bottle of whiskey at my feet.” That doesn’t exactly come as a shock.

They close with a pummeling punked-out cover of Ghost Riders, flying along until Sinnis ends it cold. The rockabilly kids have stayed; some have their phones out, taking pictures, making videos. They’ve just seen one of New York’s best bands for the last ten years at the top of their macabre game, most likely for the first time. They probably will again.

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

CD Review: Mark Sinnis – Into an Unhidden Future

The debut solo album from ominous Ninth House singer/bassist Mark Sinnis is a remarkably stark, terse collection of mostly acoustic songs including a small handful he’s played with the band. Sinnis proves he’s one of this era’s great Americana song stylists: he can croon with anyone. Vocally, this is an unabashedly romantic album, even given the bitter intensity of many of the songs. Most of them are simply Sinnis’ acoustic guitar and vocals, sometimes sparsely embellished with simple, eerily reverberating electric guitar lines from Brunch of the Living Dead’s Sara Landeau as well as gospel-tinged piano by Ninth House keyboardist Matt Dundas, violin from Susan Mitchell and lapsteel by Lenny Molotov. This is a kinder, gentler Mark Sinnis, a worthy substitute for anyone who misses Nick Cave since he went off to do his hard rock thing with Grinderman.

Sinnis’ dark, rich baritone is a potent instrument, whether roaring over the tumult of Ninth House or delivering with considerably more subtlety as he does here. Johnny Cash is the obvious influence, but there are also tinges of Roy Orbison on the understatedly bitter That’s Why I Won’t Love You, and even Elvis Presley circa His Hand in Mine on the austere ballad The Choice I Found in Fate. Sinnis’ lyrics are crystalline and polished: he doesn’t waste words; his melodies are deceptively simple and run through your head when you least expect them. Some highlights from the nineteen (!) songs on the cd: the haunting Five Days, a bitter look at how the hours are wasted on dayjob drudgery; the Carl Perkins-inflected It Takes Me Home, a long, slow, death-obsessed ride; the rousing Passing Time, a warning to anyone not aware that they should seize the day while it lasts; the Nashville gothic The Room Filled Beyond Your Door, featuring some impressively countrystyle guitar from Ninth House lead player Anti Dave; and a stripped-down version of the anguished Ninth House classic, Put a Stake Right Through It featuring some truly scary playing by Molotov. The production is beautifully uncluttered, obviously influenced by Cash’s Rick Rubin albums. This cd works on so many levels: as singer-songwriter album, as sultry country crooner album (get this for your girlfriend, or someone you would like to be your girlfriend), as well as a fascinating look at an unexpected side of one of today’s finest songwriters. CDs are available in better records stores, online and at shows. Mark Sinnis plays the cd release show for this album at the Slipper Room on March 16 at 10 PM.

February 25, 2008 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

Concert Review: Mark Steiner at Otto’s Shrunken Head, NYC 10/16/07

An exhilarating, powerful show. New York expat and former Kundera and Piker Ryan’s Folly frontman Mark Steiner had a great band behind him: brothers Peter and Christopher Mele on bass and drums, respectively, the incomparable Susan Mitchell on violin and a couple of excellent female backing vocalists joining him from time to time.

The band was loud, but as one A-list New York rocker, incognito in a maroon Midwestern windbreaker was heard to say, “I like the rock Steiner.” Both his former bands here were artsy, orchestrated units: tonight, they delivered a mix of big audience hits and new material with a roaring, passionate fury, as if this was CBGB, 1979. The sound mix was far from what it could have been: at one point, the aforementioned A-list rocker, disgusted, calmly walked to the stage and moved both vocal mics next to each other so that Steiner’s ominous baritone could be more audible than it was early in the show. In a world where good male singers are an increasingly rare commodity, Steiner is one of the absolute best, and he reaffirmed that tonight…when he could be heard. This place has a monthly surf music show in the corner back room here, and that sounds great, but bands with vocals are obviously an afterthought. The bass was too loud and the guitar went out of tune frequently (Steiner’s heavy use of the whammy bar requires that he retune after practically every song). Yet it didn’t matter. The songs were so good, the intensity of the performance so relentless and unselfconscious that they could have been playing in somebody’s garage and it would have been no less fun.

Steiner’s signature style is dark and menacing. He plays with a ton of reverb, frequently using his tremolo bar for an eerie, twangy bent-note effect. His melodies blend classical motifs with retro 50s chord changes, occasionally venturing into Irish ballad territory. The obvious influence is Nick Cave, but Steiner doesn’t play the balladeer, or affect any persona. His compositions echo an earlier era, around the time The Mercy Seat came out. Tonight’s only incongruity was between songs, as Steiner casually laughed and joked with the audience. It was a cd release show for his new album Fallen Birds, which he’s also released on 180 gram vinyl. “180 grams,” he mused. “Of what?” There was nervous laughter throughout the room: nobody was oblivious to what he was alluding to.

Early in the show, before they brought up the vocals, Steiner delivered one of his most powerful numbers, a slow, 6/8 tale of abandonment (he loves 6/8 time). Soon afterward Steiner turned up his amp to the point of distorting, and they followed with a supremely catchy, upbeat, staccato-driven tune that sounded like the great lost early Bauhaus track. After that, they played the haunting, 6/8 audience hit Now She’s Gone, then a very long cover of The Fever: “You never know how much I hate you, baby,” Steiner sneered as they launched into the song. A pretty young woman named Trisha came out of the audience to join the band, delivering a long, obviously desperate lyric that she read from a cheat sheet while the band pounded behind her like the Cramps. Given the sonics in the club, it was hard to figure out what she was singing, but eventually she was moved to the point of tears.

Then Bellmer Dolls lead guitarist Peter Mavrogeorgis joined the band for their last few songs. He’s a master of reverb-laden, dismissive, angry staccato wails, which interspersed within Mitchell’s lightning-fast, eerie gypsy runs and flourishes became the perfect complement to Steiner’s brooding, bitter melodies. Steiner warned the audience more than once that he wasn’t going to play an encore, but they still wouldn’t let him leave the stage so finally he indulged them with one of his most popular songs, Cigarettes, another trademark 6/8 number driven by reverb and tremolo chords.

This was the kind of show that you walk out of absolutely flying. It was like seeing the Clash, or the Church, or LJ Murphy for the first time. You feel bulletproof, able to ingest whole bottles of whiskey in a single gulp, stand up to any representative of the fascist machine no matter how outgunned you may be. Pure sonic adrenaline, and a reassuring reminder that music this powerful and invigorating is far, far from dead. Steiner doesn’t play a lot of US dates anymore – which undoubtedly explains why he was playing this one-off date at Otto’s instead of, say, Bowery Ballroom – watch this space for future NYC appearances.

October 17, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment