New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Month: April, 2015

An Intuitive, Eclectic, Spot-On Live Charlie Chaplin Score by Marc Ribot

Earlier this evening Marc Ribot played a live score to the Charlie Chaplin film The Kid at Symphony Space. What was most remarkable was not how perfectly synced Ribot’s aptly acoustic solo score was to the action, or how attuned it was to the filmmaker’s many levels of meaning, or how artful the variations on several themes were constructed. Believe it or not, the show wasn’t completely sold out: there might have been a dozen empty seats, which is awfully unlikely when Ribot plays the Vanguard or the Poisson Rouge. The good news is that this performance isn’t just a one-off thing: the edgy-guitar icon is taking the score on the road with him this year, so it’s a safe bet that if you missed this concert, you’ll get other chances to see him play it here on his home turf.

In case you haven’t seen the film, the 1921 silent flick is very sweet, with plenty of slapstick, irresistible sight gags, Chaplin’s signature populism…and an ending that’s awfully pat. But Ribot didn’t go there: he left off on an enigmatic, unresolved note. To his further credit, he was most present during the film’s most lingering, pensive moments: when there was a brawl, or what passed for special effects sizzle in the early 20s, Ribot backed off and didn’t compete with the vaudevillian antics. His 2010 album Silent Movies (which includes the main theme from this score) is considered a classic of noir composition and rightfully so: Ribot can build toward symphonic levels of menace out of the simplest two-note phrase. Maybe because he was playing completely clean, without any effects, he used more notes than he usually does when playing film music. And the moods were considerably more varied than the rain-drenched, reverbtoned, shadowy ambience Ribot’s cinematic work is known for.

The opening theme here was a characteristic mix of jarring close harmonies and a little Americana; as the characters were introduced, Ribot hinted at flamenco and then ran the gamut of many idioms: enigmatic downtown jazz, oldtime C&W, plaintive early 20th century klezmer pop and eerie neoromanticism, to name a few. Familiar folk and pop themes peeked their heads in and quickly retreated, but in this case the crowd – a multi-generational Upper West mix of diehard jazz people and families out for an especially cool movie night – found the action onscreen more amusing.

A bucolic waltz, a brooding hint of an insistent, repetitive horror melody, allusions to Irving Berlin and of course the noir that’s part and parcel of so much of Ribot’s music shifted shape and repeated when one of Chaplin’s various nemeses – especially Walter Lynch’s no-nonsense beat cop or Edna Purviance’s angst-driven mother to the foundling Chaplin adopts – would make a re-entry. And much as some of these themes would begin very straightforwardly, Ribot didn’t waste any time twisting all of them out of shape. Chaplin’s smalltime scam artist and his ward never have it easy in this timeless tale, and Ribot kept that front and center all the way through. Ribot heads off on yet another European tour soon; watch this space for future hometown dates.

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Yet Another Distinctive, Entertaining, Eclectic Organ Jazz Album from Brian Charette

Brian Charette – an insightful contributor to the New York City Jazz Record – is the rare music writer who also writes a good tune. And he literally wrote the book on the B3 organ. He goes under the hood: drawbar settings, mechanical tips, it’s all there. And he’s generous with his ideas: if you want to sound like Charette, he’s got all his harmonic tricks in there. He records prolifically for the reliably swinging Posi-tone label, and he’s playing the album release show for his latest one, Good Tipper – streaming at Spotify – with his reed-fueled “sextette”  tonight, April 29 at Smoke Jazz Club at the southern tip of what used to be Harlem and is now more or less the Upper West tonight with three sets at 7, 9 and 10:30 PM. As an alternative to the pricy prix-fixe menu, you can hang at the bar in the back where the sound is just as good.

Charette’s playing is distinguished by fearlessness and an imperturbable wit. He has no issues with code-switching between dub, funk, Jimmy Smith and maybe even a little Messiaen if he’s in the mood. Charette’s back catalog is mostly originals; this new release is a grab bag of new material and an eclectic bunch of covers, most of them as unpredictable as you would expect from this guy. The album’s title track is a briskly swinging, amiable number centered around a genial Avi Rothbard guitar hook, Charette working a steady, full-on, allusively fluid solo midway through. The funky cover of the Zombies’ Time of the Season is an improvement on Rod Argent’s teenage original but other than offering tongue-in-cheek hubris, doesn’t really add anything. Richard Rodgers’ Spring Is Here gets a balmy, tremolo-toned bossa tinged reinterpretation, Rothbard matching Charette’s optimism as he chooses his spots.

Al Martino’s Cuando Cuando Cuando is reinvented as a roller-rink latin soul shuffle, guitarist Yotam Silberstein adding lively, wry spiraling followed by a similarly deadpan, chugging Charette solo. Another Quarter, by Rothbard is a funky soul strut with an astigmatic, somewhat acidic Charette solo that really wakes you up while the band keeps it on the purist 60s tip.

Standing Still, a Charette original, is catchily polyrhythmic as it hints at a waltz and dips in and out of doubletime. John Barry’s theme to the film You Only Live Twice gets a very straight-up take, Charette letting Silberstein carry the hooks and saving a muted menace for his own lines, drummer Mark Ferber driving it hard.

Charette tackles a couple of Jimmy Webb tunes, Wichita Lineman and Up Up and Away, the former backing away from the baroque arrangement of the Glenn Campbell hit, adding a swinging funk groove and in the process maxing out the song’s bittersweet angst, Rothbard and drummer Jordan Young building to an insistent peak. The latter is a revelation, Charette bringing an unexpected, chordally-fueled gravitas to lite 60s stoner soul, Silberstein’s guitar supplying the helium.

One and Nine, also by Rothbard, is the album’s most expansive number, a loping groove which Charette colors judiciouslly, tenor saxophonist Joe Sucato doing the same and anchoring the tune with a tinge of smokiness. Charette sets up a classic biting/pillowy dichotomy, organ versus guitar throughout his ballad To Live in Your Life (with some irresisibly clever hints of a famous 60s janglerock hit). They take the album out on the upbeat tip with a swinging, syncopated version of Joe Henderson’s The Kicker. It’s a good introduction to the many things Charette has fun with, and a continuation of a career that confounds some of the more uptight members in the jazz community but keeps everybody else entertained…and sometimes in stitches.

Ensemble Hilka Bring a World Wiped Out by a Nuclear Disaster Back to Life at the Ukrainian Museum

Say you record an album, and for all intents and purposes, the band goes on hiatus the moment the session is done. Three and a half years later, you regroup and perform those songs for the first time since then. And what you’re singing isn’t the music you grew up with – it’s an idiom from a country in another time zone, in an ancient dialect of a foreign language with a different alphabet and a completely alien system of harmony. That’s the challenge that the roughly fifteen-piece choir Ensemble Hilka rose to meet Saturday night at their sold-out show at the Ukrainian Museum in the East Village.

The group – comprising some of the foremost musicians playing Balkan and Slavic music west of the Danube – first came together when singer Maria Sonevytsky enlisted legendary Ukrainian singer and archivist Yefim Yefremov to come to New York to conduct a series of master classes in some of the most ancient, otherworldly folk music from throughout his travels. One of Yefremov’s many areas of expertise turned out to be music from the irreparably toxic region surrounding the Chornobyl [spelling transliterated from Ukrainian] nuclear power plant, largely depopulated since the 1986 disaster there. The New York pickup group’s enthusiasm and aptitude for this largely forgotten repertoire was such that it resulted in the recording of the just-released Chornobyl Songs Project: Living Culture from a Lost World album for Smithsonian Folkways. Since many of the performers on the album are busy with their own projects, the choir members went their separate ways after recording it (although more than one new group, including the lustrous vocal trio Zozulka, first assembled as a result of the session).

Throughout the first half of the concert, the men and women of the choir alternated between songs, opening with boisterous numbers puncuated by animated call-and-response and triumphant swoops and dives as a phrase would reach the end. As the show went on, the full group would assemble, then regroup in subsets. The songs on the program, loosely assembled to trace the rituals and festivities through a year of village life to the immediate east of Kiev, had largely disappeared from the area by the time Yefremov went out to collect them back in the 70s. Their content is pretty universal: guys cajoling girls to come out…and striking out; a musician gone off to war and missing his collection of instruments; and various harvest, marriage and work songs. The melodies varied from simple, anthemic and largely minor-key to more complex, with occasional use of the eerie close harmonies common to Balkan music. Yefremov, now in his seventies, projected strongly as he led the group – which also comprises members of the folk ensembles Yara Arts Group and the Ukrainian Village Voices – through a couple of numbers, and then delivered a spare, pensive number solo, a-cappella.

The second half of the show featured individual band members performing traditional repertoire from their own projects. Hearing Eva Salina – the Romany music diva and leader of a wild, psychedelic, jazz and reggae-tinged brass group – and Bulgarian music reinventors Black Sea Hotel‘s Willa Roberts work every mighty inch of their spectacular vocal ranges out in front of the group was spine-tingling, They’d later regroup with Shelley Thomas (also of Black Sea Hotel) as Zozulka, for more Ukrainian songs. And although Black Sea Hotel’s shapeshifting, microtonally-spiced new arrangements of ancient Bulgarian songs are a completely different idiom, the crowd, heavy with Ukrainian expats, responded vigorously to the stylings of Roberts, Thomas and recently acclaimed indie actress/songwriter Sarah Small.

Another singer who wowed the crowd with her visceral power and spectacular vocal range was alto Nadia Tarnawsky, in a duo performance accompanied by long-necked lute. Eva Salina picked up her accordion and treated the audience to a handful of wrenchingly plaintive songs from her amazing recent solo album. Bandura virtuoso Julian Kytasty – who has a reputedly sensational new album of his own due out this June – drew just as much applause for his stately, elegant, stark solo songs. And it was kind of a trip to see Sonevytsky, who for several years co-led the elaborately or not-so-elaborately costumed, irresistibly quirky lit-rock trio the Debutante Hour, decked out in a simple black suit and singing these haunting numbers alongside a veteran expert from a previous era, the CTMD’s Ethel Raim (who can still belt!).

Veveritse Brass Band, a rotating cast of New York Balkan brass talent who specialize in Romany party anthems, serenaded the crowd afterward at a reception downstairs. One wonders how many if any of these musicians would have even come to New York, let alone met each other and shared their passion for this magical music, if ten or fifteen years ago this city had been gentrified to the extent it is now.

A Strange, Imaginative Night of Johnny Cash Covers at Symphony Space

Why – beyond Buttermilk Bar and the Jalopy, maybe – are punk bands the only people who cover Johnny Cash? Probably because it’s impossible to top the Man in Black. Plugging in and blasting Ring of Fire through a Fender Twin at least puts a fresh spin on an old chestnut. So in its own way, Symphony Space’s Saturday night Johnny Cash extravaganza was as challenging as any of their other annual, thematic, Wall to Wall marathons, from Bach, to Miles Davis, to the unforgettable Behind the Wall concert a few years back that spotlighted Jewish music from lands once locked behind the Iron Curtain.

The highlight of the first couple of hours of Wall to Wall Johnny Cash was jazz reinventions of mostly obscure songs. Some would say that making jazz out of Johnny Cash makes about as much sense as jazzing up Pearl Jam. An even more cynical view is that a jazz take of a Cash song gives you a get-out-of-jail-free card if you end up murdering it. As it turned out, not all the early stuff was jazz, and a lot of it wasn’t Johnny Cash either. Left to choose their own material, pretty much everybody gave themselves the additional leeway of picking songs covered rather than written by Cash. Badass resonator guitarist Mamie Minch did that with a Neil Diamond number and wowed the crowd with her ability to hit some serious lows, while blue-eyed soul chanteuse Morley Kamen did much the same with a similar template, several octaves higher. And banjo player/one-man band Jason Walker got all of one tune, at least early on, but made the most of it.

Representing the oldschool downtown Tonic/Stone contingent, guitarist/singer Janine Nichols lent her signature, uneasily airy delivery to There You Go and Long Black Veil, veering toward elegant countrypolitan more on the former than the latter while lead guitarist Brandon Ross matched her with spare, lingering washes of sound. Eric Mingus brought a starkly rustic, electrically bluesy guitar intensity and then a defiant gospel attack after switching to bass while tenor saxophonist Catherine Sikora made the most impactful statements of anyone during the early moments with her stark, deftly placed, eerily keening overtone-laced polytonalities. Extended technique from a jazz sax player, the last thing you’d expect to hear at a Johnny Cash cover night…but she made it work.

Word on the street is that the later part of the evening was much the same as far as talent was concerned, lots of people moving across the stage while the music went in a more bluegrass direction. And there’s a rumor that the venue will have another free night of Cash around this time a year from now.

A Relentlessly Interesting, Tuneful, Paradigm-Shifting Solo Cello Album by Erik Friedlander

Cellist/composer Erik Friedlander is a familiar face from John Zorn’s circle. His previous album, Nighthawks, was an unexpectedly jaunty, bouncy cello jazz response to the devastation of Hurricane Sandy in New York, seemingly a tribute to this city’s ability to bounce back. His latest album, Illuminations – inspired jointly by Bach and a recent exhibit of medieval illuminated Jewish manuscripts – is quite a change, a stark solo suite of themes and variations. The album is streaming at Bandcamp; Friedlander’s playing the album release show tonight, April 26 at around 7 PM at Dixon Place Theatre at 161 Christie St. on the Lower East Side. Cover is $15

Where Bach’s cello suites more often than not use French dance forms as a stepping-off point, Friedlander’s architecture looks toward Renaissance vocal music – to a point, anyway. The music is far more kinetic than, say, Thomas Tallis, but every bit as haunting, if it’s more tersely tuneful than otherworldly. Much as the individual tracks will go on for six or seven minutes at a clip, there’s a lot going on within them.

The stary, wary introductory theme gives way to a baroque-flavored dance, followed by a pulsing, raga-esque passage. The Middle East is evoked frequently throughout the darker sections here, first in an expansive pizzicato interlude with hints of Armenian and Indian music as well.

A plaintive minor-key theme takes on elements of the baroque and also Indian allusions as it goes on. Friedlander hits a point where it seems he’s improvising, plucking his way toward the top of the fingerboad with some lively spirals. Evocations of Middle East and North Africa mingle with a circular groove straight out of Steve Reich; then Friedlander mashes up acidically rhythmic John Zorn and stately Bach.

From there the suite returns to the Levant, runs through a tongue-in-cheek exchange of plucked and bowed voices and then picks up with an elegant sway, another instance where Friedlander mingles medieval Europe with Orientalisms and makes it all seem perfectly natural. Solo cello works are rare to begin with; ones this interesting, eclectic and chock-full of tunes are rarer still. Fans of Middle Eastern, classical music and jazz should give this one a spin.

Dark Songstress Ember Schrag Plays a Revealingly Low-Key Brooklyn House Concert

Carlos, the goodlooking, rangy guy who runs the space housing the Gatehouse concert series in Fort Greene, surveyed the room Friday night. His black eyes shifted warily, separating familiar faces from newcomers. His blasé, taciturn expression muted a spring-loaded, muscularly twitchy presence, clearly on the prowl for fresh meat. More about that later.

Ember Schrag opened the show in a rare all-acoustic duo performance with polymath lead guitarist Bob Bannister. Notwithstanding her DIY esthetic, Schrag is an elegant singer with sophisticated mic technique, and isn’t used to singing without one. So it was interesting to watch her scramble to find a way to project into the space, in the process unleashing an unexpected grit and raw menace that don’t usually find their way into her typically stately, enigmatic vocals. While she’s most recently been mining a richly lyrical, psychedelically-tinged art-rock vein, this setting gave her the chance to air out several tracks from her haunting, low-key, mostly acoustic Great Plains gothic album The Sewing Room, including the title track, a metaphorically-charged battle of angels that ends as an unexpectedly triumphant escape anthem. As the Nebraska-born songwriter told it, there might be more than a little autobiography in there.

Throughout Sutherland, a tensely fingerpicked murder ballad, Schrag’s voice reached for more menace and foreshadowing than her deadpan, Melora Creager-esque delivery on the studio version. By contrast, Virgin in the Shadow of My Shoe – a swaying pop anthem from Schrag’s latest release, a live Folkadelphia session featuring Susan Alcorn on pedal steel – was irresistibly snide and funny. The two guitarists kept a steady stroll going with Banquo’s Book, its ominous series of images and a deliciously understated, bitingly terse, bluesy Bannister solo.

On album, Your Words is a delicate kiss-off anthem; here, Schrag raised the anger factor, but just a little. An older song related an incident involving a collaboration with a free jazz group and an offer of free rent in a space that turned out to have bedbugs; a new one, Speak to Me in Dreams, juxtaposed another trail of nonchalantly murderous imagery with sizzling fretwork from Bannister. Schrag closed with I Ain’t a Prophet, a corruscating remake of a familiar fire-and-brimstone Bible myth – “Got to use a hammer on Jacob’s Ladder,” she calmly intoned.

Now you might think that someone whose songs can be as starkly serious as most of the numbers in this set would bring a similar gravitas to the stage. Not so. In front of an audience, Schrag is a firecracker, bantering with the crowd and sharing insights into her fabulistic, Calvinist imagery. She peppers her songs with all sorts of Old Testament references coupled with an irreverence that at the core is pure oldschool punk rock. And as generous as she is with the keys to her narratives, she also brought a delicious gin/grapefruit punch, and a cake made out of several kinds of flour that everyone was raving about, and some baked chicken.

About two songs before the end of the show, Carlos finally went into action with a flying leap onto the table, poised to make a swipe at the meat. But an audience member in the back calmly lifted the jet-black figure and his furry paws and returned him to his spot on the floor, where the hungry predator regrouped, grudgingly accepted an appreciative pat on the head, and began plotting his next move. Watch this space for upcoming shows by Schrag, with or without furry friends in the house.

Matt Keating and Band Put On a Clinic in Purposeful Janglerock

Last night Matt Keating put on a fiery, jangly, two-guitar full-band show. Beyond the catchiness of the tunes and the cleverness – and frequent ferocity – of the lyrics, it was a consummate display of musicianship. Keating is a perfectly good lead guitarist in his own right, but he’d chosen this time to give that job to Steve Mayone, who put on a clinic in good taste and judicious use of as few notes as possible. Rare in a guitarist, rarer still in a lead player. Mayone’s first solo was a blue-flame scorcher that ended in a flurry of tremolo-picking, so it seemed that he’d take it even higher after that. Nope. As it turned out, he stayed on the counterintuitive tip, first choosing his spots through a series of short, bluesy, single-note leads, often using a vintage analog chorus pedal for a deliciously watery, ominous tone. As the show went on, he switched on and off between that and more of a biting, distorted timbre, finally cutting loose and blazing his way to the top of the fretboard on one of the closing numbers.

Meanwhile, bassist Jason Mercer filled the role of second lead guitarist with his lithe slides, slithery upward runs and stairstepping moves toward the looming, foggy bottom of his hollowbody Danelectro SG copy. Like Mayone, drummer and longtime Jenifer Jackson collaborator Greg Wieczorek was all about counterintuitivity, throwing elbows and unexpected accents when a space would open up. To max out the textures, he cushioned his snare with a cloth on one of the early numbers and varied his attack from song to song: sometimes he’d be hitting the snare with a stick and the rest of the kit with a bundle, or with brushes, or he’d switch from mallets to sticks as a song would rise from misterioso to anthemic. Keating began on acoustic and then switched to Strat for couple of the harder-rocking, more Stonesy songs, although he saved his most intense wailing for the acoustic on the loudest number of the night, an unhinged, practically brutal version of They’ve Thrown You Away. It’s classic Keating, a searingly imagistic Flyover America narrative that ponders a lot of things, not the least whether or not the guy with designs on the damaged woman at the center of the narrative can drive her home from her job at the roadside corporate chain since he might have gotten his license revoked for giving a cop the finger.

And where did the band decide to show off all this artistry? The Beacon? City Winery? Nope. Hifi Bar in the East Village, in the old Brownies space where Keating had played, probably more than once, twenty years ago. If that isn’t keeping it real, you figure out what is. The songs ran the gamut from some of the catchiest material on Keating’s characteristically dark new album, This Perfect Crime, to a pair of jangly powerpop set pieces – Saint Cloud and Louisiana – from his brilliant 2008 double cd, Quixotic – to the ghostly Coney Island 1910, to a slowly crescendoing take of the old crowd-pleaser Lonely Blue, on which Wieczorek started out by transforming it into trip-hop before picking up with a stadium-rock drive as the band reached for the rafters. Watch this space for upcoming hometown shows from this killer group.

The Bright Smoke Haunt Mercury Lounge

Friday night at the Mercury the Bright Smoke played a magical, haunting show. Since she fronted the equally haunting, even more angst-fueled French Exit back in the late zeros, frontwoman/guitarist Mia Wilson’s enigmatic alto voice has gone deeper into the lows. As unassailable, outraged witness, she’s sort of a teens counterpart to Siouxsie Sioux at her mid-80s peak. Guitarwise, Wilson has found her muse in the most otherworldly corners of old delta blues. She surrounds those ancient, rustic riffs with a swirling yet rhythmic, psychedelic ambience. Drummer Karl Thomas was given the difficult task of matching beats with Kevin the laptop (manipulated with split-second precision by Yuki Maekawa Ledbetter) and didn’t miss a beat, coloring the music with terse, emphatic cymbal shades and defly chosen rimshots. Lead guitarist Quincy Ledbetter was a sorcerer in his lab, shifting seamlessly from wary circular riffs to biting clusters of Chicago blues riffage, minimalist 80s jangle and clang, and watery dreampop atmospherics.

They opened with Pure Light, Wilson and Ledbetter trading off and mingling notes as they would do throughout the set, nebulous clang versus ambient austerity, a girl-at-the-bottom-of-the-well milieu that grew more majestic, a la the Church circa Priest = Aura. They worked the same contrast on the broodingly strolling Late for War. Trade Up turned out to be the most exhilarating song of the night, Ledbetter slowly building a searing solo from enveloping, menacingly echoes to a skin-peeling, stygian slide down the fretboard as it wound out.

City on an Island, a slow, watery Joy Division-tinged anthem was the antithesis of the wet-behind-the-ears gentrifier tributes this city’s received so many of in the past few years: Wilson mused cynically about this “mess of a machine…take me to your parties, show me your scene.” She evoked Marissa Nadler with her steady, graceful fingerpicking throughout the achingly soul-infused trip-hop of On Ten, another number that grew to a majestic, Church-like crescendo

The band followed the same trajectory, with more white-knuckle Joy Division intensity on the simply titled Or, then made acid rock out of Sade with Hard Pander, the new album’s opening track: “You’re in over your head, so pander right and pander hard,” Wilson’s nameless narrator warned caustically. The band worked the swirly/jagged dynamic for all it was worth on Shakedown and closed with the understatedly ferocious, accusatory Exit Door, whose mantra is “I wanna know where the money comes from.” A logical question in real estate bubble era New York from a band who capture this particular age of anxiety better than pretty much anybody else. The Bright Smoke play at around 10 on May 9 at Nola Darling, 161 W 22nd St. east of 7th Ave. Cover is $10 on a bill to benefit homeless LGBT youth.

Richard Thompson Reinvents His Brooding Acoustic Classics in Newark

It’s often been argued that Richard Thompson is not only the greatest guitarist but also the greatest songwriter in the history of rock. Year after year, he continues to validate that claim. This past evening in the sonically magnificent confines of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in downtown Newark, Thompson revitalized a mix of darkly glimmering folk-rock favorites from the 60s through the present decade, along with a trio of new songs that reaffirmed the iconic songwriter’s presence in the pantheon. Heavy praise earned by a heavy guy, philosophically speaking, anyway.

Plenty of bandleaders will do an occasional solo acoustic tour for the sake of putting a fresh spin on old material…or for the sake of some perceived intimacy with the audience (which only works if the lyrics are strong)…or to max out the bottom line since there’s no band to pay. Thompson, on the other hand, has at least two fully arranged versions of probably most of the songs in his vast back catalog, one electric and one acoustic, and probably other alternates as well. Like most of his contemporaries from the 60s and 70s English folk revival, he’s always had a thing for unusual guitar tunings, but he’s taken that obsession to a new level, and the songs with it. The result is richly layered internal harmonies that are as sophisticated as Bach and if anything enhance the succinctness and catchiness of his tunes. At this solo acoustic show, one prime example was I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, an eager, cheery folk-pop number in its original 1974 incarnation with Thompson’s ex-wife Linda on harmonies. Live, in a new tuning and without the bvox, it took on an unexpected gravitas that meshed especially well with the other material.

Which can be pretty grim. Thompson opened with Stony Ground, a pretty savage dig at an old goat who can’t manage to keep his overexcited, um, imagination zipped. He followed with an aptly sepulchral take of The Ghost of You Walks and revisited that haunted atmosphere with I Misunderstood at the end of his roughly 75-minute set. Revenge took centerstage in the deliciously vicious, anthemic Good Things Happen to Bad People and later in Fergus Lang, an excoriatingly funny portrait of a robber baron developer (who very, very closely resembles Donald Trump) who buys off the local powers that be in order to desecrate the countryside with golf courses and the like. The tune became even funnier in context after Thompson played a few bars of the dirty old Scottish folk song that inspired it.

The new material was characteristically vivid and eclectic: Josephine, a brooding minor-key portrait of a woman who isn’t completely together to begin with and is slowly losing what she has left; One Door Opens, a stark, rustically rhythmic number that harks back to Thompson’s roots; and a resonantly bittersweet portrait of Amsterdam. Thompson also did rousing takes of obligatory fan favorites including the lickety-split robber ballad Vincent Black Lightning, and The Wall of Death, his defiantly classic anthem about living at full emotional throttle, no matter what the cost. That one had some highwire, raga-esque soloing, as did the opening number, along with Read About Love, a sarcastic look back at 50s British sexual mores and their ugly consequences.

Otherwise, this show was about going as deeply into the songs as possible and wringing out their intensity, through the Newcastle gothic of Black Leg Miner (a fiercely pro-union song), the sardonic sea chantey Johnny’s Faraway on the Rolling Sea and an unexpected treat, a newly arranged take of Sandy Denny’s Fairport Convention classic Who Knows Where the Time Goes. Throughout the set, Thompson subtly varied his tones and timbres, coloring them with watery tremolo and judicious use of reverb and delay. And he’s never sung better, especially strong in the low registers.

A word about the venue: nice place! It’s about half the size of the Town Hall, with pristine acoustics, comfortable seating, pleasantly laid-back and helpful staff, and it’s just a brief five-minute walk from the Path train. Door-to-door home from the train station, in this case, took under an hour (admittedly, jumping on the F just as it was leaving the station was a big help)

Anonymous 4 Sing a Potentially Historic Concert in a Historic Space

The acclaimed a-cappella quartet Anonymous 4 – Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer, Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek and Ruth Cunningham – have been on a rather poignant farewell tour over the past year. They’ve completed their trilogy of albums of classic American folk songs with their latest and final release 1865, a collaboration with Americana instrumental maven Bruce Molsky. The album is streaming at NPR. And the group are making what could be their final New York appearance at the great hall at Cooper Union on April 23 at 8 PM; the $10 tickets might well be gone by now, but there may be other seats available. It’s fitting that a group whose last recorded work opens with an antiwar ballad would be performing at the same venue where Abraham Lincoln addressed the city’s power brokers about the need to free the slaves one hundred and fifty-odd years ago.

Stylistically speaking, the new album looks back to a era where ambitious church groups would lend their sophisticated polyphony to the folk and pop songs of the day. The theme here is songs of the Civil War, whose grimness and elegiac qualities speak for themselves, but also have a vividly ominous contemporary resonance. The recording itself is gorgeous, Molsky’s banjo, fiddle and guitar benefiting from the same natural reverb as the voices in what is obviously a live recording.

There’s a lot of bittersweet music on this album. When This Cruel War Is Over, a Union Army wife or girlfriend’s lament, has a gently timeless power. The plaintiveness and longing in the elegaic Nellie Gray resonates as much as the lustrous sadness of the four-part harmonies on Sweet Evelina. Molsky sings Hard Times Come Again No More as a solo banjo tune, then switches to fiddle as the women return for an unexpectedly stark,  swaying take of Southern Soldier Boy, which he winds up as a lively dance. Molsky’s solo banjo-and-vocal take of Bright Sunny South underscores the bravado masking dread of the Confederate soldier leaving home and maybe not coming back. Likewise, Tenting on the Old Camp Ground hides its exhaustion with war horror in an ethereal arrangement. Elvis fans will hear a familiar melody in Aura Lee, its narrative a far cry from either a military hymn or a pop ballad.

They pick up the pace with the brisk banjo tune Listen to the Mocking Bird and keep the energy up with the  lively fiddle reel Camp Chase. Molsky takes over vocals on the dying soldier’s lament Brother Green. It’s telling that Faded Coat of Blue is also called The Nameless Grave; it might be the most grisly number here, notwithstanding the beautiful harmonies. Molsky plays guitar on that one as he does the sad, stately waltz Maiden in the Garden, a harshly accurate portrait of long-distance relationships in times of war. The True Lover’s Farewell has a more rustic, Appalachian feel than the rest of the vocal numbers here. The album follows a more hopeful trajectory as it winds out with themes of nostalgia and a couple of country gospel tunes. This is what life during wartime was like before Twitter and Skype – people entertained themselves and put their lives in context with songs like these.