Music

Tiempos Modernos
By the elements of their style shall ye applaud or disdain the Kronos Quartet, classical music's attention-demanding little brother. The lights were suitably warm and flattering and the polyester outfits tastefully kooky at the quartet's May 16 appearance at Joe's Pub, where they showcased a century's worth of (mostly) Mexican music from their thoroughly entertaining recent album, Nuevo. What I dig most about violinist-bandleader David Harrington's combo, and what others have no truck with, is their less than meticulous, even punky approach to music that isn't essentially "classical" at all; they simply perform new, undiscovered, or rediscovered compositions with much the same respect as, say, jazz pianist Uri Caine covering Schubert.

In a program that hewed close to the album, Kronos offered a version of what might be labeled "Mexicana": It embraced music ranging from the transfigured brass-band sound of Severiano Briseno's 1943 tune "El Sinaloense (The Man From Sinaloa)" to a snappy rendition of "Nachco Verduzco," a '90s narcocorrido (ballad about drug trafficking) by Chalino Sánchez. Yet insofar as the margins often become the mainstream in Kronosville, much of their show was devoted to such novelty items as "space-age bachelor pad" icon Juan Garcia Esquivel's 1968 hit "Mini Skirt" and "Chavosuite," a medley of works by kiddie-show host Roberto Gómez Bolaños, who possessed an Ernie Kovacs knack for the apposite sound gag.

Augmented throughout the evening by pre-recorded drums, street sounds, and even the ivy-leaf solo of Alberto Domínguez's "Perfidia (Perfidy)," the quartet often threatened to disappear, like wayward backpackers, into the seductive sonic fabric of their artificial Mexico. Thus the show's climax, a performance of "12/12"—a national portrait commissioned from post-punk rockers Café Tacuba—came off as the quartet's Dark Side of the Moon, with piped-in band, urban clamor, and fireworks surrounding and ultimately overwhelming the quartet. And if you thought that was tony kitsch, Kronos encored with a sweet version of Indian film composer R.D. Burman's "Aaj Ki Raat (Tonight Is the Night)." Bollywood ho! —Richard Gehr


Strained Bedfellows

If uptown is the new downtown, then Symphony Space is looking to be the new Knitting Factory. The "Adventures" series (May 16 to 18) paired experimental musicians from post-rock and avant-jazz hotbed Chicago with some of New York's own style blazers for what promised to be a top-shelf soundclash.

But who knew the emphasis would be on clash? On the 17th, the partnering of Harlem rap vanguards Cannibal Ox with the skilled technicians of Isotope 217 shifted erratically between promise and expectation. A monster of a jazz outfit, Isotope had done their homework, mastering all the nuances of El-P's production. On "Raspberry Fields," John Herndon played the whole song manually, poking at a drum pad with his two pointer fingers while guitarist Jeff Parker did a mock slide maneuver to reach full tonal depth with a wide vibrato. The results nailed Can Ox's zero-gravity aesthetic, but there was little chemistry between the band and Vast (his fellow MC Vordul didn't show; a second, late-night set was reported to have been more enthusiastically delivered and received). His cronies didn't help either, although C-Rayz Walz's evocation of the cold vein as "the McDonald's where the burgers is dropped in toxic waste" was equally baffling and endearing.

The evening's struggles had less to do with concept than execution. Can Ox's flows are inherently muddy, but El-P's digital shimmer brings them alive. When matched up against Parker's nimble guitar or the arching trombone whorls of Steve Swell, they become even more obscure. Consequently, in front of the listless, seated crowd, the show degenerated into an inscrutable lecture, moments of vitality subsumed by the deadening whole. At the end, as if just realizing the force of his backing troupe, Vast turned to them, grinning, and faux conducted. It was his first assured gesture, but he was never in charge. —Jon Caramanica


Talk Memphis

"Snow—in the middle of May?" Jesse Winchester joked about his flake-filled drive down from Montreal on May 19 for the equally rare occurrence of a U.S. concert date in (of all places) Middletown, New York, in (of all places) the living room of stately Morrison Mansion on the campus of Orange County Community College. "I'm going to have to add that to my list of questions for the Lord," said Winchester, who'd been enticed to "rouse from my pastoral torpor" and come perform as part of the Sunday afternoon concert series run by a local nonprofit organization called Friends of Music. (And that they are: Each show is preceded by an hour of potluck appetizers and desserts brought by the 50 to 75 regular attendees.) The reclusive Tennessee-bred singer-songwriter, who in 1967 chose Canada over the Vietnam War, might also want to inquire as to how said Lord knew back then that Winchester wouldn't stop spinning rich, evocative tales of the American South he long ago left behind but never stopped loving.

Now more than 30 years removed from his near-mythic, Robbie Robertson-produced 1970 debut album, Winchester remains the same honeysuckle-with-a-side-of-grits Dixie dreamer. From tingling old ballads such as "Biloxi" and "Yankee Lady" to recent heart-tuggers like "No Pride at All" and "That's What Makes You Strong," the guitarist nimbly weaved his way through a career-surveying, 20-song set with precisely the kind of genteel charm one would expect from a Southern gentleman. True, he's been a citizen of the Great White North since 1973 (he opted to stay in Quebec even after the Amnesty Act of '77), but hearing Winchester's sweet-tea tenor gliding over the doo-wop grounded "Do La Lay" and the tellingly titled "Hank and Lefty Raised My Country Soul," there's no mistaking his musical patriotism. As the man says, "Talk Memphis—I just can't get enough." Neither can we, Jesse. —Billy Altman

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