My self-curated guitar festival with Aram Bajakian, Nels Cline, Marc Ribot and Stephen Ulrich

It’s been a very busy couple of weeks here in Concertville, having attended eleven sets of live music in the twelve days after I wrote my last blog post. (Edit: And I’ve attended four more concerts since I wrote that sentence because I haven’t found the time to finish this blog post all week!) I realized partway through that eleven-set run that I was in the middle of an inadvertent celebration of all things guitar, with several of my favorite guitarists playing multiple shows all in a row.

The main event was Aram Bajakian’s residency at the Stone. I only made it to seven sets (going to the Stone is a lot harder when the MTA does late-night construction on your concert commute, grrr!) but I heard some wonderful music along the way. I have a hard time narrowing it down to favorites, since the music was so diverse that it’s hard to compare one set to the next; but I think my top three were Dálava; music inspired by “The Color of Pomegranates,” and his duo set with Alan Semerdjian.

Aram did two sets of Dálava during his residency, one with a full band and one as a guitar/vocal duet. I saw the one with a full band, which was Aram Bajakian on guitar; Julia Ulehla doing vocals; Tom Swafford and Jake Shulman Ment playing violins; Frank London on trumpet; Shanir Blumenkranz on bass; and Ted Reichman on accordion. (It was funny since I’d had a fairly random interaction with someone the previous night on the subway, and said something about there not being enough good music written for accordions. And the very next night: great music with an accordion! Wish: granted.) I’d seen Dálava’s New York premiere a few months ago, and although I enjoyed that first show, I thought this set at the Stone was by far the better of the two. The attentive, appreciative audience at the Stone and the intimate space makes everything better, and I think the band was just feeling it more this time. The music is an unusual blend of old Eastern European folk music and modern downtown New York sensibility. Very interesting stuff. (Check it out here.)

The duo set with Alan Semerdjian was really very special; Alan would recite poems (written by him as well as some poems by Armenian writers, translated into English, in tribute to the 100th anniversary of the 1915 Armenian genocide) while Aram played music to underscore and illustrate the texts. The poetry was excellent and thought-provoking, and the solo guitar accompaniment was beautiful. I would love to hear more of this collaboration, it really worked well and was an emotionally powerful experience.

The solo set of music inspired by “The Color of Pomegranates” was also a very special set. He performed it twice; I attended the second one. The audience was pretty small – I guess there aren’t so many people in this city craving solo guitar scores for avant-garde foreign films at 11 o’clock on a Thursday night, go figure! – but I think every last one of us was very glad we were there. Gorgeous, thoughtful, dreamy solo guitar music that made effective use of pedals and amps in ways I hadn’t heard before. If you closed your eyes you would have had a hard time believing there was just one guitarist in the room. You won’t get the full effect of that late-night set in a darkened East Village venue, but check out a sample of this music here:

You can pre-order the album here if you like that – Aram said it should be out in the next few months. I am really looking forward to it.

I saw some more guitar fireworks at the Stone the previous week, during Yuka Honda’s residency. I went to a couple of those sets, both featuring guitarist Nels Cline and a variety of other musicians, but the one that blew my mind was “Breath Grips,” described as ‘The interpretation of the music of Death Grips mashed with breath core.’ The band: Marc Ribot and Nels Cline on guitars, Jordyn Blakey on drums, Yuka Honda on bass and Taeji Sawai on electronics. (Toru Urakawa was doing something with video, but I have to admit I wasn’t looking at it very much – some of the segments were flickering/flashing fast enough to be a migraine trigger for me, so I had to avoid watching too much. Sometimes I don’t think I’m cut out for the avant garde art scene…) I got there really early and got the front row seat that was oddly placed almost in the middle of the band. I’ve yet to find a seat that’s too close for me, what can I say? 😉 I love being enveloped in the music like that.

Now, when I say the show blew my mind, I’m not kidding. It was the kind of show where, afterwards, random strangers in line for the bathroom turn to you and say “Wasn’t that AMAZING?!” And it wasn’t just good, it was unusual and unexpected and mind-expanding in all kinds of ways. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard anything quite like it. I really didn’t know what to expect going in, and if I’m being 100% honest, I had pretty low expectations, figuring it would be a heavy noisefest and not that much fun. But I went anyway, because when you’re an experimental music fan, you’re willing to roll the dice with musicians and composers that you trust to make worthwhile art. In the end, it was not what I expected at all, and it was a TON of fun as well as challenging and fascinating. It was definitely noisy, but there was a lot of melody and rhythm and they managed to walk that tightrope, rocking our collective face off while teetering over the abyss of chaotic noise. Like the musical equivalent of extreme sports: it’s a lot of fun to witness and participation can be exhilarating, but at the back of your mind you know if things go wrong someone’s going to end up with a brain injury.

I won’t try to post a video or audio clip because there’s nothing out there that sounds like that show, but do check out Nels Cline’s tour schedule (click here) as well as Marc Ribot’s (click here) and get yourself a little live guitar magic.

The last entrant into my imaginary guitar festival was a show at Barbes by a band called Big Lazy, consisting of Stephen Ulrich on guitar, Andrew Hall on bass, and Yuval Lion on drums. (Strangely, I ended up seeing Yuval four times in six days entirely by accident, in three unrelated bands at three different venues plus one time walking down the street in the East Village. I promise I’m not stalking you! New York is a weird place sometimes.) Big Lazy are one of those bands I’ve been hearing good things about for a while, but never quite managed to get to a show – until now. I really enjoyed their set a lot! A little dark, a little raw, a little edgy, but very cool and just a really nice sound. I will definitely see them again. Keep an eye on their tour page (click here), there are a few shows coming up in New York and elsewhere… and check out some of their music:

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2 Responses to My self-curated guitar festival with Aram Bajakian, Nels Cline, Marc Ribot and Stephen Ulrich

  1. Mike Durham says:

    The Big Lazy has a really good off the cuff groove about them, I dig it. Almost visual, could see it in a film. Kill Bill, or an older spy flick, something shaken, not stirred, thanks for turning me on to them!

  2. ticketron says:

    I agree with Mike. It was more than obvious in Kill Bill. The Big Lazy definately has a terrific groove.


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