Nehedar and Hudson K Bring Down the Lights at the Delancey

by delarue

Why do so many folkies play coffeehouses? Because their audiences need caffeine in order to stay awake!

There’s usually nothing more boring than a solo vocal-and-guitar act. Typically, the person onstage can either play but not sing, or sing but not play. Many of them can’t do either. And their songs tend to be about themselves, and their meh lives, and their meh loves, or more likely lack thereof. So it was a special treat Thursday night to see soul-rock songwriter Nehedar a.k.a. Emilia Cataldo hold the crowd absolutely rapt with her edgy, often harrowing storytelling and her elegant, balletesque vocal leaps and pirouettes. You could have heard a pin drop. And this wasn’t at Jazz at Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall, either, it was downstairs at the Delancey. Where people go to hang, and have a few beers, and chitchat while their friends onstage are doing their thing.

And Cataldo doesn’t seem to sing about herself, either; midway through the set, she mused that so many of her songs are about other peoples’ problems – and that she was grateful for that. She opened with Bells of the City, an angst-fueled, swaying oldschool soul song from her excellent new album This Heart that seems to be about somebody “building a nice career out of a life of fear” who ends up not being able to resist the lure of the bright lights. Maybe it was just the power of suggestion, but when she got to the chorus, her voice took on a bell-like resonance. There are a million women out there with pleasant voices; what Cataldo does with hers, always in the service of getting a lyric across or teasing the listener, is what makes her different and worth hearing.

The version of On Killing on the new album is a brooding bolero; here, she did it more as a punchy, brutally insightful rock song about the psychology of warfare: “They taught him to kill and he was good student, ’cause he had the will,” Cataldo wailed knowingly. She went back to a soul vibe for the sad, restless, alienated Headlights, a piano ballad on the album that benefited from the jolt of energy that Cataldo gave it onstage. She followed what was essentially a biting, minor-key garage rock number with another minor-key one that gave her a platform for some bracingly spiraling vocals. Then she went into oldschool country for Something to Call Mine, a pensive ballad that she said sounds like a breakup ballad, but it’s not.

The soul vibe returned on Pretty Young Thing, a nonchalantly haunting tale of a girl who “could be your baby and she could be you,” who runs into somebody who was looking out for someone just like her to attack. Cataldo closed with a Blues Traveler cover, of all things, which she said was basically a clinic in how to write a song. And it wasn’t bad! There’s a lot of darkness and even horror in Cataldo’s songwriting, but she can also be a lot of fun: nobody saw it coming when she turned the outro into hip-hop.

Where Cataldo is all about drawing people into her narratives, Knoxville’s Hudson K, who was next on the bill, is all about power. Belting out her darkwave anthems in a hurricane-force alto over the fat, body-slamming synth bass blasting from her mixing board, she wielded a keytar, backed by a hard-hitting drummer who rose to the challenge of having to play in sync with the mechanical beats.”You’re stuck on repeat,” she wailed sarcastically on the catchiest number of her set, building to a loudly wavering, spacy wash of string synth over an 80s goth hook. There didn’t seem to be a lot of black eyeliner in the crowd, but pretty much everybody got up, moved down front and joined the dance party. Hudson K’s music is actually a lot more eclectic than this show intimated; a couple of years ago, she put out a killer noir cabaret-rock album, Shine, which is still available at her Bandcamp page as a free download.

And the sound at the venue  was great! As Hudson K joyously told the crowd, Marco behind the soundboard made that room really sing.