Mary Lee Kortes Launches What Could Be an Amazing Album at the Rockwood

by delarue

It’s never safe to say that any one artist is the best at any particular style: every time somebody seems to reach the top, somebody else knocks them off, most likely without any intention of doing that. You know the drill: the more good stuff you know, the more you discover. That being said, there’s definitely no better or more diverse songwriter than Mary Lee Kortes working right now, anywhere in the world. Earlier this evening at the Rockwood she aired out her latest project, The Songs of Beulah Rowley, an intense, meticulously crafted, lyrically shattering collection of tunes that seemed to draw equally on Belgian barroom music, Great Plains saloon jazz, lively swing and epic Americana, all with her signature intense lyricism.

Pretty impressive for someone known primarily as a spine-tingling, crystalline singer (Kortes has led the UN Voices, sung on albums by Placido Domingo and fronted richly tuneful Americana rock band Mary Lee’s Corvette from the late 90s through the end of the zeros). As Kortes tells it, Rowley was orphaned at ten, dead by thirty, a precocious and rather profound songwriter from the 1920s who, like Kortes, never met a style of music she couldn’t master and then leave her own indelible mark on. “Pain will do that,” Kortes offered as explanation. Kortes’ all-star band – Andy York on banjitar (banjo body, guitar neck and strings), Rod Hohl on acoustic guitar, Joe Chiofalo on accordion, Jeremy Chatzky on bass and Phil Cimino on drums – reveled in the songs’ rich harmonies, wryly tricky metrics and full-throttle lyrical power. If all goes according to plan, these songs will take shape on a crowdsourced album with legendary producer Hal Willner (the guy behind the cult favorite Amarcord Nino Rota album of Fellini film themes) at the helm. It’s a project worth getting involved with, if only for the sake of owning a piece of the action when it comes out. There are also all kinds of cool prizes and perks available – house concerts, rare memorabilia, the works.

Kortes worked a sarcastic, recurrent “hallelujah” on the first song of the set, the banjitar’s bluesy ominousness underscoring a harrowing cycle of violence repeating itself. We Did Well By the Water, the second number, was a mantra-like, spot-on evocation of Midwestern denial. As Kortes told it, these tightlipped folks ended up drinking their tears.

Minor keys notwithstanding, not all of Rowley’s narratives ended badly: the irrepressibly jaunty hi-de-ho swing tune Big Things and a similarly wired early 1900s-style klezmer-vaudeville romp echoed an indomitable desire to make a name for herself under the bright lights. And Fingernail Moon, a bouncily apprehensive noir shuffle, brought to mind another first-class, Midwestern-born, New York-based songwriter, Bliss Blood.

But an unresolved ache lingered. Kortes went deep into jazz nuance for the angst-fueled Will Anybody Know That I Was Here – one one level, a shout-out to posterity, on another a chilling admission of very possible defeat. Kortes nicked the vamping chords of One For My Baby for an anthemic tribute to the virtues of an interior life – Rowley’s bio, more fleshed out, might well have legs as a fullscale theatrical production. Kortes then went back to careful, jazz-tinged modulation – and some searing upper register vocals – for a swinging early Nashville pop-inflected number. She wound up the show with Someplace We Can’t See, uneasily balancing towering, anthemic hope with a pervasive bitterness There are as many levels of meaning in Kortes’ songcraft as there are in her vocals: here’s to hearing these unselfconsciously deep songs immortalized in the studio as they deserve to be.