A Hawk and a Hacksaw + Damon & Naomi at Cambridge YMCA Theater | September 18


As Hawk and a Hacksaw kicked into their first number at the YMCA Theater last Friday night,  I thought, “So this is what the kids are listening to?” Sitting crossed-legged on the main floor of the theater, campfire style, indie nation (with a few creaky older types in portable chairs at the perimeters) listened intently as violinist Heather Trost and percussionist/accordionist Jeremy Barnes spun through a repertoire of vintage, odd-metered instrumental Balkan dance music. A few years ago, this stuff would have been strictly the province of world-music geeks and jazz nerds (in fact, World Music/CrashArts were the presenter of this event). And I remember about 100 years ago the jazz/world fusionist Matt Darriau  playing similar stuff at the old 1369 Jazz Club. He couldn’t get arrested.

What accounts for AHAAH’s modest popularity? (The YMCA Theater isn’t that big, after all, and there was room for plenty more people.) For one, there’s Barnes’s tenure in indie-rock savant band Neutral Milk Hotel. Then there’s Trost’s virtuoso charisma -- standing there in her long straight brown hair, belted patterned short dress, spinning through breakneck fiddle lines while Barnes thumped a bass-drum head with a foot pedal and wheezed along on accordion.       The other thing is that they’re just plain good. After a couple of numbers, bouzouki, tuba, and trumpet joined the mix. The music was both free-wheeling and carefully arranged, with cued fade-out segues and tempo shifts. Trost brought out her antique-style trumpet-horn-amplified violin and played it with a string (her own modification of an instrument still in use in the Balkans). Barnes shout-sang a number. In their way, AHAAH fit right in with the post-freak folk exoticism of Boston’s Beat Circus and Humanwine, Providence’s Eyesores, and you-name-it. And there’s the authenticity factor -- Trost and Barnes logged serious time in Hungary learning this stuff from the people who invented it. More power to ‘em.

It was fitting that AHAAH have chosen Cambridge’s Damon & Naomi as openers for their tour [read Michael Brodeur's preview/interview with the band here]. Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang anticipated psych-folk and freak folk with their own ‘90s Amer-indie take on the British folk tradition. They pride themselves on playing unapologetically slow, sad music. Or they just can’t help themselves.

These days, they’re touring behind their Sub Pop Years compilation (20|20|20), and at the Y, despite the gorgeous sadness of it all, I was reminded of how funny they are in concert. Krukowski delivered one dry-witted one-liner after another between songs, introducing “New York City” as “echt ‘90s indie rock,” and pointing out that several songs on The Sub Pop Years were written “in a rent-controlled apartment right here in Central Square.” Karl Marx, who features in “Eye of the Storm,” was referred to as “a 19th century romantic poet.”

And then there was the music, still gorgeous after all these years. They began with Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren,” Krukowski taking the lead vocals, Yang harmonizing. Damon & Naomi’s principle collaborators in concert on recent records have been Neil Young-ish pysch-rock guitarist Michio Kurihara (of the Japanese band Ghost) and the Boston horn duo of saxophonist Bhob Rainey and trumpeter Greg Kelley. Here it was just the assertive strum of Krukowski’s acoustic guitar and Yang’s keyboard -- especially effective when played in its rich, sonorous organ setting.

Like the Buckley --- and despite what Krukowski said about “New York City” -- everything they played sounded both up-to-the-minute and timelessly ancient . “We’re going to play this song as slowly as possible,” Krukowski said before “Lilac Land,” the “saddest song in a career of sad songs.” At times, the combined vocal harmonies -- Krukowski’s high keen, Yang’s long-toned laments -- and the mix of acoustic guitar and keyboards, conjured a third voice, as if the Y’s acoustic itself were a “sympathetic” string being sounded.  Sadness never felt so good.

--Jon Garelick

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