Saturday night at the friendly downstairs First Acoustics Coffeehouse in downtown Brooklyn, songwriter Sharon Goldman played a casually brilliant show backed by a nimble rhythm section of Niko Dann on cajon and cymbals and a smart, terse bassist who alternated judiciously between melodic grooves and wary bowed melody lines. Goldman opened the show ambitiously, a-cappella, with Time Is an Airplane, a jazzy pop tune from her latest album Sleepless Lullaby, stripped down to its country roots. Poised but not slick, she’s a sophisticated singer, shifting subtly between emotions, sometimes in the same song. In her all-too-brief set opening for Sloan Wainwright, she varied her approach as the concert went on, several times reaching up for full-throated high notes that sent overtones shimmering through the PA system, a powerful and hair-raising effect that’s probably the last thing you would expect from someone in the folk-pop world.
Goldman has a new ep out as a free download, and she played two-thirds of it. Sun is a recurrent image in her writing, but it’s often elusive and sometimes even sinister. As usual, she let the images do the talking with Pocket Full of Sun, a backbeat country song whose pensiveness eventually gave way to a quiet triumph. By contrast, she delivered Tuesday Morning Sun, a 9/11 memoir from a distance, with understated dread, letting its final minor chord ring out on her guitar at the end.
Goldman is also a great wit, and she let her hair down with a somewhat cruelly sardonic look at a high school reunion, a series of increasingly amusing riffs on how the years have been unkind to “all my friends, replaced by aliens: older aliens!” Again, she let the images speak for themselves. These days it seems that one cable channel or another is always doing some kind of school reunion show: this song would make a perfect theme. She followed with a biting version of what might be her best song, Suburban Sunshine, a pulsing garage rock number that looks back in anger at an adolescence where the sunshine is “heavier than rain,” and where ultimately there’s no choice left but to get out. She closed with the disarmingly complex Short Brown Hair, a Snow White/Rose Red dichotomy that manages to be cute and funny but just as poignant, a vivid recollection of childhood sibling rivalry which ends with the sweet taste of revenge, in this case a bite of stolen jellybeans.
Wainwright was next. What can be said about her that hasn’t been said already? Lovely voice, with a strong but nuanced command of gospel and soul as well as folk music; understated and sympathetic accompaniment; attractively accessible melodies, and a complete absence of anything resembling subtext, paradox or intrigue. Honest beyond reproach, in the world she comes from, everything is exactly as it seems. By the way, this venue is a wonderful alternative to the uptight, nickel-and-dime approach that most folkie venues take: the staff are warm and friendly, there are many options for seating, and neighborhood folk have brought all kinds of treats, baked and otherwise, in case you’re hungry or thirsty.