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 Tacubacame 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
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
"Snowin 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 MemphisI just can't get enough." Neither can we, Jesse. Billy Altman
Dance (Get Down on It)
With Rudy Giuliani far from City Hall, the owners of the Slipper Room thought it was safe for their customers to cut loose. But plainclothes inspectors padlocked the Lower East Side bar on March 28 after gathering evidence of illicit rhythmic movement. The Slipper Room lacks a cabaret license, required of all New York City bars and restaurants to permit people to bust a move. To reopen his lounge, owner James Habacker paid a fine of about $6000 and pleaded guilty to violating the city's administrative code. Since the padlocking, Habacker has hung "No Dancing" signs and even hired someone to stop the wiggling on weekends.
Inspectors also fined the Habackers last year, writing in their citation that "a partially naked male" was spotted dancing. But that was during the Giuliani era, when the mayor strictly enforced the Prohibition-era ordinance, originally enacted to control immoral behavior associated with nightlife and jazz. Only 3.4 percent of the city's bars and restaurants licensed to sell alcohol have the coveted permit.
Though Michael Bloomberg has a far more fun-loving reputation than his predecessor, so far he hasn't changed the cabaret law or curbed its enforcement. "The mayor is committed to rigorously enforcing the law and improving the quality of life of all New Yorkers," says Bloomberg spokesman Jerry Russo.
Still, dance activists and cabaret law opponents are cautiously optimistic. "Communication is day-and-night better," says Robert Bookman, who represents the New York Nightlife Association, a business coalition formed during Giuliani's reign. On May 16, Eric Demby of Legalize Dancing NYC (and also a frequent contributor to the Sound of the City) joined the Slipper Room's Habacker, civil rights lawyer Norman Siegel, and City Councilmember Alan Gerson's chief of staff, Dirk McCall, for a meeting with Gretchen Dykstra, commissioner of the Department of Consumer Affairs, the agency that licenses and monitors dancing. "We want to amend or abolish the law," says McCall, who adds that Gerson hopes to propose legislation by the end of the year. Says Demby, "The forward momentum is there, and that's a really welcome contrast from the previous administration."
The biggest challenge, according to Demby, will be reaching a consensus on how to maintain the cabaret law's quality-of-life and public-safety provisions without regulating dancing. "It's not the act of several people dancing that's a problem, but everything that goes along with that," concurs Gregory Heller, chair of Community Board 3, which includes the Slipper Room's Orchard Street location. "Usually the music is louder and there's a cover charge, so people wait on the street." Fire Department spokesman Jim Spollen adds, "We monitor dancing because the crowds create a need for more fire precautions."
But that leaves the Slipper Room's customers with very little wiggle room, which, along with a precarious economic climate, might shut down the bar for good. Profits are down by one-third since their no-dancing policy began, says Habacker, who can't even apply for a cabaret license because the Slipper Room isn't located in the 25 percent of Manhattanmanufacturing and commercial districtszoned for public dancing. "It's hard to have a successful business and abide by this law," co-owner Camille Habacker contends. "Who wants to come to a place where every time they get up to have fun, they're told to sit down?"
New York isn't the only city to see increased enforcement of dancing restrictions in recent years: Police have clamped down on illegal dancing from San Francisco to Pound, Virginia, an Appalachian coal-mining town of about 1000 people, where Golden Pine Restaurant owner Bill Elam is challenging the constitutionality of the town's dancing permit in federal court. "Sooner or later in your life you have to stand up," Elam says.
Encouraged or suppressed, bodies will most likely keep moving. Back in New York at the Cock, a gay bar on Avenue A, Sean Salmela stands in the middle of the floor, swaying to a pounding techno beat. "If we know we can't dance," he says, "we just move in place." Lina Katz
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