Creature Combos In NYC: Los Lobos, The Detroit Cobras, Bonobo, Gato Loco & Fight The Big Bull


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Los Lobos
City Winery
December 31, 2010

For no immediately apparent reason, New York City has recently been invaded by acts that peck or gobble their names straight out of a bestiary. Los Lobos played two shows on New Year's Eve, with this first set neatly sidestepping the hysteria of midnight, but nevertheless still swollen with celebratory anticipation. Even though the Winery had to be punctually cleared for the second show, these veteran Los Angeles rockers still managed to plough through a substantial 90-minute set. They don't often play in such an intimate venue, and quips were made about disturbing diners with guitar grinding dance provocations. This element was particularly prominent when the band delivered its more hardcore Spanish-language numbers, all engorged with multi-guitar distortion, making it a trial to stay seated as the wine flowed forth freely.

They made a confident statement by opening up with "Tin Can Trust," the title track of their new album, but this fresh material was by no means set to dominate the evening's songbook. If the south-of-the-border psychedelic Chicano shufflers represented some of the night's peaks, the polar tendency for mellow North American jangly-rock balladry illustrated their weakest state. Fortunately, the largest ratio of material grew out of a more aggressive manifestation of hardened US rock, invariably dominated by tallster David Hidalgo's seething guitar solos. This being the first time that I've witnessed Los Lobos, it wasn't so obvious that Hidalgo was going to be the dominant guitar soloist. Maybe this is a recent development. Meanwhile, Steve Berlin's organ and saxophone layering provided crucial embellishment. As the audience began to reach fever pitch, arming themselves for heading off to some inevitable midnight party, Los Lobos dropped in a pair of climactic Grateful Dead tunes, markedly longer than their own works. Doubtless, the 'round midnight set that followed was to reach an even greater pitch of hysteria.

The Detroit Cobras
The Bell House
January 1, 2011

The still-youthful Detroit Cobras are dedicated to the preservation of a retro songbook, even if those works become rucked up by a punkish delivery. And even if the core duo of singer Rachel Nagy and guitarist Mary Ramirez have been together for 16 years. They specialize in classic (though often obscurist) soul, garage, rock 'n' roll and pop ditties from the vinyl vaults of yesteryear.

Nagy's presence was all-commanding, though casual. She managed to preserve the intimate, unguarded communication talents of a novice, while still sharply hitting the phrasing points with power and gutsy assurance. It was a valuable combination. The only drawback was that a cumulative exposure during the set tended to reveal a lack of sonic variety in the short, trouncing numbers. Nevertheless, the Cobras had their peaks, and these returned periodically, throughout the night.

January 1, 2011

In search of high contrast, it was back to Manhattan for a DJ set by England's Bonobo. Alphabet City's Nublu is the best (and most down home/individualistic) dance club in NYC, reveling in a nature that can, on a quiet Monday night, welcome hardcore free jazz improvisation or, for its peak Saturday session (as here) throb the joint out with a semi-undercover DJ set by Bonobo. The last time he was in town, mere months ago, he pretty much filled The Bowery Ballroom with his full band configuration. Dancing was not so easy at Nublu, due to a pile-up of sweaty bodies (even in the post-snow dump landscape). A fortunately won barfly position ensured a first-hand view of Bonobo's deckery sleight. How to describe his sounds? Organic bass-humping funk naturalism, perchance? The night was long, and the more local Nickodemus (from Brooklyn) continued the established mood with a more globally-orientated slant.

Gato Loco
Bowery Poetry Club
January 2, 2011

This was the last night of Gato Loco's month-long Sunday night residency at the Bowery Poetry Club, which also just happens to be the most likely haunt for this manic NYC combo when delivering its one-off gigs. Led by the exuberant-to-say-the-least Stefan Zeniuk, who favors tenor saxophone amongst his potential reed panoply, Gato Loco was fortunately present in its expanded big band formation. The small combo version is well worth checking out; specializing in low-end bass obsession, but the fat cat manifestation enables full psychedelic Latin hurtling, bejeweled with crazed solos and dashingly complex ensemble themes.

Zeniuk decided to introduce most of the pieces in a Chinese restaurant fashion, holding up numbered sheets rather than fully titled prompts. Except for the sign saying "Soma," which was the name of the feline who had the misfortune to suffocate itself inside pet master Joe Exley's tuba. Surely Soma's corpse would have been blown to the far side of the room, if it had remained in place until show time.

The combined players might have all been hyperactive indeed, but Zeniuk always surpassed any energy that they threw out, whether he was issuing frantic hand signals or erupting in an expressively ornate—but always driven and blustery—solo of his own. Guitarist Clifton Hyde was frequently responsible for tearing the music off into an even more extreme zone, just when it was already running at full tilt. His unhinged date with ascension recalled the most powerful, overloaded fuzz guitar stretches produced by the Harvey Averne Barrio Band in the 1970s. Disconcertingly, Hyde also doubled on French horn. Surely this was a one-off combination—a completely impressive form of schizophrenia!

Fight The Big Bull
January 6, 2011

This gig was on the eve of NYC's Winter Jazzfest, which is where Fight the Big Bull last made a massive dent on the city's musical landscape, a year previously. This was a lower-key show, in a way, but still bristling with a large crowd, a victory celebration for local promoters Search & Restore's successful Kickstarter Project fund-raising drive. There were two more big bands on the way (Darcy James Argue and Steven Bernstein's Millennial Territory Orchestra), but the audience was already growing fast during FTBB's prompt opening set.

The band hails from Richmond, Virginia, and its music was more lawless than that which was to follow. They were more of an enlarged small combo than a full big band, but there was still no shortage of bristling horn power. FTBB relishes the possibilities found in the teetering between an arranged rumpus and regular outbreaks of abrasive individuality. As seen and heard before, their twinned trombones were notably prominent, and often muted into a New Orleans splutter, ripped, smeared and streaked. Their drummer also scuttled around his percussive floor-mess, and the trombonists demonstrated a penchant for deftly-timed bell-chimes, or other tiny metallic embellishments. Guitarist (and ringmaster) Matt White seemed less dominant than last time around, but that may have been a general sound-balance quirk. Charles Mingus must be the group's spiritual guiding light, particularly the way in which he sieved down the music of New Orleans, his wanton way with roughed-up gospel and blues. All this, and more, fed through the intestines of free improvisation. Given that Steven Bernstein was so central to FTBB's last album project, and that he was lurking around in the house, it was strange that he decided not to make a guest showing.

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