Tuesday, February 12, 2008

A Hoedown in Brooklyn? Killer Santoor in the East Village?

So when you hear that there is a "hoedown in Brooklyn," you perhaps are not thinking about folk music but rather about the need to send for an ambulance. (I was going to use that one on the radio, but then I thought about Imus.) But fear not! New York City country music impresario Dock Oscar, who (along with Alex Battles) has brought us the Kings County Opry, the now-defunct New York City Opry and the Brooklyn Country Music Festival, as well as provided some great music with his band Sweet William and other ensembles, for four years now--four years!--has given old-time string band music a home in chilly Brooklyn.

The first and second Brooklyn Winter Hoedowns were held mostly at Freddy's Backroom, a lovely neighborhood bar in Fort Greene that is also the site of the King's County Opry. But last year, most of the festival moved to Superfine in DUMBO, just underneath the Manhattan Bridge, and that is where this year's festival entirely resided.

I made it down on Friday night, meeting up with my friend Simon (with whom I explored DUMBO back when it was full of artists' lofts and not luxury apartments) and his girlfriend Paula. The dinner that we had at Superfine was lovely if a touch pricey for the country music crowd. I had the bucatini with meatballs and sausage, which was just lovely. We drank some Lone Star beer, which seemed more appropriate, although I soon moved on to some Peak Organic Pale Ale (but only after my request for a Yuengling, the official beer of the Winters family, was denied). The place was packed! (We inferred that people must live in DUMBO now; those luxury apartments must actually work.) And we were seated far enough away that we sadly could just barely hear the music.

So Hogzilla's set seemed fine--Hilary Hawke's banjo was pretty clear and seemed right on; Mimi Lavalley's guitar sadly less so--but I spent most of Jan Bell and the Cheap Dates' set (which again featured Hilary Hawke's banjo) talking with various musicians around the bar. And then with Simon itching to hit the road back to Connecticut, we left the show before the mighty (wind) force that is the M Shanghai String Band could take the stage. I include their photo here as penitence. Count them if you can! (And go to see them because they are a barrel of fun.)

But I was back on Sunday afternoon, and I got myself better positioned to actually hear the music this time. I arrived in between two sets by Blue Harvest. Named after the code name for Return of the Jedi, these guys play solid traditional American music, a mix of old-time string band tunes, Western Swing numbers and bluegrass songs. The set that I saw was terrific. Band leader and fiddler Clarence Ferrari is a super-smooth player, no matter which genre the band is veering into, and guitarist Rick Snell has a ton of nice licks that he has incorporated from his years of jazz training. Brendan O'Grady holds it down on bass, and Brian Axford adds in some nice mandolin chops here and there. And when Edith Silver steps up to the microphone to sing--on the Cousin Emmy song "Bowling Green," for instance--watch out because she's got a set of pipes on her! My favorite tune that they do is "Miss Molly," a Bob Wills' number that is super lively and singable. But on Sunday, the winner was their encore, which was a fiddle jazz tune in the style of Stephane Grapelli: both Rick and Clarence really got to show off their chops, and they brought it home.

Blue Harvest was followed by Long Island family band the Homegrown String Band. I had a really nice time catching up with Rick and Georgianne Jackofsky, the parents, before their set, and enjoyed their treatment of classic tunes like "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down" and "Shady Grove." Of particular note is Rick's tribute to Johnny Cash, "The Man Who Dressed in Black," which is out on their most recent CD, Ragged But Right--it is a tune that's worth a listen.

Another group from Long Island, Free Grass Union, played next--or rather, half of Free Grass Union played next. Normally a quartet, only mandolinist Greg Butler and guitarist David Nelinson were at Superfine on Sunday. They played a nice collection of tunes, starting off with the Grateful Dead's "Brokedown Palace" and moving on to "Sittin' on Top of the World" and some instrumental numbers. Rick Jackofsky sat in with them for a few numbers, as David had sat in on the Homegrown String Band's set.

Then Alicia Jo Rabins and the Halo Boys closed up the show. I had had the great pleasure of having Alicia on The Moonshine Show the previous Sunday along with Dock Oscar and the Ambassadors of Love. Trained as a classical fiddler, Alicia has, through various chance encounters, stumbled into playing old-time tunes and klezmer tunes. (She is one of the members of the absolutely fantastic, cannot be missed, you must see them Golem, the world's greatest punk-klezmer band.) She has a wonderful tone and a very smooth playing style, and she can sing a good tune, too. Alicia's set on Sunday closely mirrored the set that she had played on WKCR with a number of songs off her CD Sugar Shack. She played her medley of "Sail Away Ladies/Sugar Shack" and her beautiful rendition of "Neil Gow's Lament for the Death of His Second Wife," a two-centuries old Scottish tune. Sadly, my friend Dan (who had joined me during the Homegrown String Band's set) and I had another engagement, and so we left in the middle of Alicia's set to brave the frigid New York City air and get ourselves to the East Village.

Rockin' the Santoor

Where were we headed, you ask? We were headed to Drom, a swanky (some might say pretentious) new venue on Avenue A that never would have been found anywhere near the East Village of my youth. The service was surly, and the beer selection was lacking, but the food was pretty good, and the music was downright great.

We were there to see Gaida Hinnawi, who turned out to be a simply amazing vocalist. Of Syrian descent, she has amazing vocal control and a great ability to weave about and hover around the melody in a way that draws your ear in and forces you to pay attention. It was beautiful, beautiful vocal music.

But I was really sold on Amir ElSaffar, an Iraqi-American musician playing with Gaida. Equally dexterous on santoor and trumpet, he is a true musical virtuoso. The santoor is a hammered dulcimer, and he used his hammers to play these shimmering Middle Eastern scales with pitch-perfect control. His trumpet was terrifically expressive, providing a nice solo partner for Gaida's voice, and drawing us all in a little bit more.

The rest of the band was bass, oud and percussion, and all of the other musicians were terrific as well. On a few numbers, they really got their groove on, making the whole room clap and tap.

Gaida and Amir ElSaffar play on March 20th at Joe's Pub in a free show. Dan and I saw the band Zikrayat play at a party recently, and they were worth the trip even before we had seen Gaida sing; now it is doubly so.

1 comment:

Jess said...

That Middle Eastern music sounds great. Wish they were coming to Portland. I'll have to see if there's anything like that going on around here. It's possible, but not quite as likely as NYC...