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The Sketchy Orkestra Plays Le Poisson Rouge

by Nick Stubblefield

IMG_3901Guest Star Emily Braden sings

Applying genre labels to music and musicians can be a tricky business -- it sells a product, but is often at odds with the art itself. The Sketchy Orkestra, brainchild of pianist and artistic director Misha Piatigorsky, is a group dedicated to defying labels and convention, and the result is a unique, fun, and energetic ride.  Their performance this week at New York's le Poisson Rouge served listeners a hearty helping of genre-defying tunes. There were elements of jazz, rock, hip-hop and even Russian folk-song in a single program, and it was raucous energy bobbing and weaving through the tapestry of lush texture and color. 

To stage right, we saw a traditional jazz set-up. The rhythm section included Piatigorsky at a Yamaha concert grand, the bassist switching between electric and standup, and an auxiliary percussionist on the cajón -- a box drum I happen to personally favor for its Earthy timbre. To their right, a trumpeter and saxophonist. Dominating center stage, appropriately, was the twelve-piece string orchestra, the strings delivering a cinematic richness to each composition.

But the question was -- "could they groove?" In fact, they could, and they could groove hard.  The arrangements, while diverse stylistically, were often filled with fun surprises. Sudden bursts of energy, jumbo-sized ranges in dynamics, and elongated sectional solos kept the audience engaged throughout. Piatgorsky's piano touch, plus the arrangements and compositions themselves, evinced the ensemble's classical training.  "17 Rooms" evoked a Khachaturian-esque waltz; its folksiness gave the string soloists plenty to work with, and they were allowed to explore their full-range of abilities. In contrast, "Somewhere in Between's" heavy groove reminded me of a classic mo-town rhythm section. 

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Lewis Del Mar at Bowery Ballroom

by Steven Pisano Lewis Del Mar at Bowery Ballroom(All photos by Steven Pisano.)

As the Rockaways increase their hip quotient each year, first with surfers (who we all know make everything cool), then with artists, and more recently with musicians (Patti Smith has a place there), I keep thinking of that Bob Dylan line: "Something is happening here, but you don't know what is. Do you, Mr. Jones?"

On Wednesday night, the up-and-coming band Lewis Del Mar performed at Bowery Ballroom, on a stage bestrewn with palm fronds. There is noone in the band with that name. The band is actually two people--singer/guitarist Danny Miller and drummer/producer Max Harwood--longtime friends from the Washington, DC, area who have lived in  a 2-room bungalow in Rockaway Beach since 2014. Signed last year to the Columbia label Startime International, the group is now on tour through the end of the summer, where some shows are already sold out 3 months in advance!

The Ballroom was packed, despite the fact that these guys have only released a 4-song EP so far. But their song "Loud(y)" logged in over 300,000 listens on Soundcloud last year, which naturally drew a lot of attention from the stokers of the star-maker machinery. The group has other songs, of course, which presumably will make it onto their first full-length recording. Still, they only played about an hour, so the catalog is not deep yet.

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Preview: Big Ears Festival 2016

Big ears festival 2015I'm excited to be returning to Knoxville, TN this weekend for the Big Ears Festival, which I attended for the first time last year and was pretty much blown away by the wall-to-wall mix of new music, electronic music, jazz, drone, and every other genre that doesn't neatly fit into a Pandora's box. This year's lineup includes everyone from Philip Glass and John Luther Adams, to Andrew Bird and Sunn O))). The festivities begin tomorrow night; stay tuned here and @feastofmusic for updates. Click here for a video montage of last year's festival. 


Africa Now! at the Apollo Theater

by Steven Pisano

Mokoomba at the Apollo Theater(All photos by Steven Pisano.)

The Africa Now! music festival, which just wrapped up it's fourth year at the Apollo Theater, aspires to provide American audiences with a tasting menu of current trends in African music. Of course, the problem in general with music showcases (i.e., SXSW, CMJ, etc.) is that sometimes a nibble just isn't enough. Often, groups are just hitting their stride when out trots the smiling emcee to introduce the next act.

Alsarah and the Nubatones, a Brooklyn-based band with origins in Sudan, played a silky smooth, jazz-inflected set that would have connected better with an audience in a midsize venue. Occasionally, she let out a sudden roof-raising belt that sent shivers through the audience, but most of the songs mixed gentle jazz rhythms with folk-style vocals, all strained through an East African filter.

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Ron Pope and the Nighthawks at Irving Plaza

by Steven Pisano

  20160109-DSC_5870(All photos by Steven Pisano.)

Ron Pope and the Nighthawks played Irving Plaza last weekend, performing music off of their brand new self-titled album. Hailing from Georgia and now based in New York, Pope is embarking on a new phase in his career. Primarily known as a solo musician, Pope recorded his new record with a band and is bringing them with him on a 30-plus-city tour of Europe and U.S.

While his earlier music was a bit poppy (several of Pope's tracks were used on TV's So You Think You Can Dance), he has since grown his hair longer, and his new music is more Americana with country edges, which gets back to his roots in the South. And it fits him well.

At Irving Plaza, he started off singing old favorites for his fans, who had sold out the club, encouraging the audience to sing along with him. Then, he mixed in the new material as if he wasn't sure they would take to this new direction. But soon, they were bopping their heads on the uptempo numbers, and hugging each other during the ballads.

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