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January 2009

Lounge Lizards


Los Angeles has always had a thing for lounge acts: offbeat singers who sing amusing, occasionally scathing lyrics in small rooms filled with kitsch. Which might be the inspiration for Ethan Lipton & His Orchestra, who brought their offbeat act to Barbes last night. Lipton, an L.A. native who now lives in Red Hook, comes across as somewhere between Tony Shaloub and Tony Clifton, disarming the crowd with his easy manner before flaying us with his hilarious, tongue-in-cheek songs. (Lipton is also a successful playwright.) Take "Bossy Man":

"You need a bossy man to love you
 a bossy man to hold you close
a bossy man to dress and care for you
 a bossy man to take control
you need a man to make your mind up
 a bossy man to set you free
 from all of life’s upsetting choices
 like what to do and who to be."

You can take back Paris and Lindsay: this is one L.A. export we could use some more of in this town. 

Mean Fiddler


Forget Perlman, forget Bell, forget Jean-Luc Ponty: for my money, the best violinist I've ever seen is a diminutive gypsy from Hungary named Roby Lakatos. Born into a famous family of Romani fiddlers, Lakatos - who goes by the moniker "The Devil's Fiddler," received classical training in his youth, but has long since developed an expansive, rapid-fire technique that is all his own.

On Tuesday, Lakatos played to a near-capacity crowd at Carnegie Hall, with a set that reflected his wide-ranging musical interests, borrowing equally from the classical, folk and jazz idioms. Onstage, Lakatos proved himself to be a consummate showman, with his flowing hair, leather suit, and a rhinestone belt buckle in the shape of a "G" (for "Gypsy"?) But, when it came to playing, he was all business, alternating tempos and adding little flourishes like tremolos. At one point, he even made his violin sing like a hummingbird. It was a performance unlike anything I've ever heard.


Lakatos' backing band was filled with virtuosos from Hungary, most of whom were barely out of their teens. Pianist Frantisek Janoska (22) played jazz and riffs that sounded like Rachmaninoff cadenzas. Jeno Lisztes (22) played Cimbalom: a cousin of the hammer dulcimer that requires the player to hit a row of strings with a pair of thin mallets. Guitarist Laszlo Balogh (21) sounded like the spitting image of Django Reinhardt. Robert Fehér (21) and Lászlo Bóni (40) backed up on bass and violin, respectively.

Over the course of the evening Lakatos brought out a trio of guest musicians, each of whom added their own unique flavor to the mix. Myriam Fuks sang Yiddish songs with a larger-than-life persona. The bold and fearless Czech Iva Bittová left her violin at home, but contributed a pair of songs that left her screeching like some otherworldly banshee. And Afro-Cuban master Michel Camillo blew everyone out of the water with a set that had his hands flying off the keyboard; his duet with Lakatos was the highlight of the night.

During the encore, the entire audience started to clap in rhythm: close your eyes, and you'd think you were back in the old country. Lakatos, for his part, looked like he was just getting warmed up. Boy I would have liked to have gone to that afterparty...(More pics below.)


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Is This Thing On?

P1280010 I'm at Galapagos, listening to a normally-formidable set by new music ensemble So Percussion, when suddenly they just randomly start stacking paint cans and banging shit onstage. Everyone thinks they're just setting up for the next piece, until suddenly their conversations are interrupted by a rhythmic, increasingly noisy clamor. "Oh, is this the piece?" the girl next to me asks aloud. Fifteen years after his death, that bastard Cage is still causing mischief. 

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Colorado Gypsies


I'll admit, I hesitated to pony up the $25 for last night's show at Webster Hall. It might not be fair, but the minute a show passes the $15 mark, my expectations go up. Way up.

DeVotchKa , a four-piece from Denver, have been compared to everyone from Arcade Fire to Gogol Bordello for their blend of Balkan and mariachi music, classical and indie rock. Over the past decade, they've built a steady following through relentless touring with a battery of instruments in tow; their big break came in 2005, when they were asked to provide the soundtrack to the Academy-Award winning film "Little Miss Sunshine." 

In addition to acoustic and electric guitar, lead singer Nick Urata plays bouzouki, keyboard, and theremin. Tom Hagerman plays violin and accordion. Jeanie Schroder switched back and forth between Sousaphone and upright bass. And drummer Shawn King could often be heard chiming in on trumpet. As if all that weren't enough, they played with a full string quartet. And a brass section. At one point, they even brought out an aerialist (rumored to be Urata's girlfriend.)

Suffice to say, we all got our money's worth.


But, impressive as it all was, their circus wouldn't be worth a damn if the music wasn't any good. For me, the key was Urata's vocals, which sound like a mature cross of Jeff Buckley and Beirut's Zach Condon. Urata clearly isn't afraid to keep his heart on his sleeve,  which might have something to do with his Gypsy roots.

After playing nonstop for nearly two hours - including encore - the band saved their best for last. "How It Ends" is an extraordinary meditation on love and loss, with Urata's plaintive voice soaring out into the audience, lifted aloft by piercing strings that just about tore my heart out. One of the saddest, most beautiful things I've ever heard at a live show. Listen for yourself:


DeVotchKa is currently touring in support of their new album, A Mad and Faithful Telling. Future show dates available on their website. Go and see them. (More pics below.)

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