I took the train into Manhattan yesterday and spent as fine a day as I’ve had in NYC in a long, long time.
It began inauspiciously, though, with the called-for rain starting almost immediately as my companion and I set out up Lexington Avenue. I’d brought along a $2 umbrella from a previous soaked visit to Brooklyn, but it wasn’t cutting it for the two of us, so I’m now the owner of two cheap disposable umbrellas. (::shrugs::) We meandered over and to and through Central Park and wound up at SummerStage in time for a set by Apollo Heights, who — for all the Cocteau Twins Mos Def TV on the Radio hype and indie music journalism love — completely sucked live. I mean, I get what they’re trying to do, and think it’s cool — wall of guitars meets soul-style vocal harmonies, or what some folks are calling shoegaze-derived Afrogaze — but the way they did it in performance was crappy piercing painful feedback for feedback’s sake and sounded nothing like their studio singles. In terms of musical genre, they’re loose cousins to TV on the Radio, who I like a lot, but with less polished vocals, and a guitar sound that can probably trace its lineage back through (very) early Catherine Wheel and Jesus and Mary Chain to the live portion of Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma. But still: when there’s no music happening between songs and you, Danny Chavis, are working to maintain that sustained painful nothing-but-feedback squeal for the umpteenth time and a substantial portion of your tiny audience is facing you with their fingers in their ears, it might be time to take the hint: dude, you’re just being a dick. They’re critical darlings, but their live chops and production are far from up to their studio sound — and that’s why they opened.
Fortunately, they opened for a far, far better band:
Dengue Fever, who I’ve usually heard described as a perfect combination of California surf-rock psychedelia and Cambodian pop, with lyrics sung mostly in Khmer by the incomparable Chhom Nimol. I’ve got one of their albums, the gorgeously head-trippy Escape from Dragon House, but I was interested to hear their set progress from more straight-ahead rock/pop (with amazing, exuberant singing) into super-psychedelic territory with swirling reverb and pseudo-theremin synth stabs (with amazing, exuberant singing). Chhom Nimol’s a brilliantly charismatic singer, the band is beyond tight (and gracious), and the show was fantastic. Go: see them: buy their music. (друзья мои, they’re at the Iron Horse in Northampton on July 8.) And, during their set, the skies cleared up and the sun came out. They acknowledged that the rain gods favor them.
Which would have been a perfect conclusion to a free concert in the Park, but my companion and I had already begun to realize we were amid a swiftly-increasing contingent of three generations of an Algerian family, from the grandmama in the black lace-trimmed khimar (?) to auntie in her red sweater to the our-age folks to the happily boogieing five-year-olds, which as it turned out was a fine place to be. When Rachid Taha came out, there were the Algerian womens’ ululations, and he didn’t disappoint in the least. Everybody danced — even auntie, whose poise and footwork (with her sweater tied round her waist) put young gentlemen to shame — and the set was, as the young folk like to say, smokin. The songs were in French, Arabic, Spanish, English (well, a little), with north African polyrhythmic percussion, techno synths, something that looked and sounded (I think) like an oud, bass, drums, overdriven guitar, and Taha’s percussive half-rapped, half-crooned lyrics.
His penultimate song was an Arabic-language revision of the Clash’s “Rock the Casbah” as an explicitly anti-war “Rock el Casbah,” and it was pretty good, but I’ll confess to being much more partial to “Menfi” and “Bent Sahra.” My companion loved it all, and when I asked her whether Taha would make it to her Amazon wish list, she retorted that such a thing would take far too long. If she’s not up on iTunes tonight, she’ll likely be at Barnes & Noble tomorrow. If you get the chance, see him live: Rachid Taha is a phenomenal entertainer, and I’ll confess some like-mindedness to his political views, as well.
After the show, we made our way north to Beyoglu, a Turkish restaurant on the Upper East Side, and scored a fine table for people-watching on Third Avenue. The meze — get the octopus — and the lamb special were superlative on a cool summer night, as were the baklava and Turkish coffee, and we concluded our evening with a turn past the NYPL’s stone lions and after-dark drinks in Bryant Park.
Next year, it’ll be time for me to head south to the family celebration at Sassafras Knoll. But that’s another story.