Barbez (NYC Part 2)

One problem with having a wide-open evening in New York is the number of choices available, even when you limit yourself to more adventurous music. The particular Friday night that I had free on my recent trip was particularly stacked.

Out of the blue, a Brooklyn friend (who had no idea I was agonizing over the schedule) suggested I hop the subway to the new Roulette building to check out Barbez, a band with a very modern take on Klezmer and an interest in history. In fact, their next album, on John Zorn’s Tzadik label, will include melodies taken from the Roman Jews — there was such a people, apparently, and of course they date all the way back to Roman times.

That’s not to say Barbez (unrelated to the Brooklyn venue Barbès AFAIK) plays antiquated themes. It’s vibrant sextet music with energetic Klezmer-jazz attitude, some thick electric guitar from bandleader Dan Kaufman, and some new-classical turns on violin and clarinet.

They put together a varied show that took advantage of Roulette’s theater stage. For two quieter pieces, two dancers came out and performed slow-motion routines excerpted from a program called “The Making of Americans.” One of these pieces was also accompanied by vocalist Shelley Hirsch reciting some prose (Gertrude Stein?) and a silent film of Indiana scenes.

Hirsch, decked out in elegant black, took the stage for a couple of these readings and for an over-the-top Brechtian cabaret finale.

In addition to Kaufman’s bright guitar, the music included sparkling vibraphone lines and some aggressive electric bass from Peter Lettre (also of the indie band Shearwater). I wish I’d been able to hear more of Peter Hess on clarinet and especially bass clarinet; he was kind of buried by the amplified instruments. I liked what I heard from him, though, a blend of klezmer, jazz, and classical.

The next day, I did find myself really regretting that I hadn’t caught Berne’s band (formerly Los Totopos, now snakeoil) later that night. With the grace of the subway-transfer gods, I could have made it. But I can console myself by waiting for Feb. 28, when they’ll be playing at Yoshi’s in Oakland.

By the way, that Roulette theater is really nice. It’s unfinished — we sat on folding chairs instead of theater seats, for instance — but it’s a theater, with decent acoustics, a clean look, real stage lights, and balcony seating. I had trouble finding the front door, as did several other people I met outside, so apparently some of New York is still discovering it (or maybe Barbez attracts a very non-Roulette kind of crowd). I hope Roulette succeeds. This is the kind of venue that could hold a few decades’ worth of good music memories.

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