Two NYC Shows and a Brave New Project from the Tuneful Sharon Goldman

by delarue

Sharon Goldman is one of this young century’s great tunesmiths. She gets pigeonholed as a folksinger, and she plays that circuit, but she’s more likely to go deep into elegant chamber pop. And every now and then she’ll dash off a country song, or an intricately fingerpicked guitar ballad. Much as a lot of her material has a very intimate feel – the title track to her 2013 album Silent Lessons is one of the most spot-on, shattering portraits of wee-hours despondency ever recorded – she doesn’t write a lot of autobiographical songs. Her latest project, which she’s about to begin recording, is a radical departure, and a genuinely brave move for her, an examination of her conflicted roots as a secular Jewish artist raised in the Modern Orthodox tradition. She’ll be unveiling some of those songs along with material from her substantial back catalog at a couple of upcoming concerts. Tomorrow night, March 18 she’ll be at the American Folk Art Museum at 5:30 PM for an early, free afterwork show. Then on April 7 she’ll be playing one of the First Acoustics House Concerts in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn. Cover is $25, with dessert and coffee at 7 PM, show at 8; advance registration is required, email for info.

What’s most striking about Goldman’s new song cycle is that it’s as universal as it is rooted in centuries of tradition. Any individualist who’s come out of a strict religious background will find a lot in common with Goldman’s narratives. She played a fascinating set of some of them at Caffe Vivaldi last month, joined by a terse, melodic mandolinist/lead guitarist. It’ll be interesting to see whether or not she records these songs as a set of related vignettes, as she did that night, or in linear fashion. The night’s uneasily strolling first number, Sabbath Queen, captured the exhaustion and exasperation of a young Jewish matriarch trying to be all that’s expected of her, to keep herself together and remain a calm center of attention at yet another Sabbath dinner.

Set to an ominous descending riff, the darkly blues-tinged Don’t Look Back flipped the script on the Sodom & Gomorrah myth, casting the fate of Lot’s wife in a sympathetic new light. The gently fingerpicked song after that brought back a muted exasperation, a girl waiting for a sign in the night sky overhead to signal the end of the Sabbath…so she can go off and be herself, and search for spirituality by herself…or not.

Goldman kept the music delicate throughout the next number, building an eerily evocative tableau of a conflicted bride at a traditional wedding celebration, finally bringing in a bit of a hora and an aptly dark, rustic Middle Eastern-tinged riff at the end. As she did on more than one song, Goldman sang it in both English and Hebrew.

She built a wistfully catchy, elegiac portrait of a lost relative, then switched to the piano for a smolderingly understated minor-key ballad.“The ghosts of my ancestors haunt me, they speak a language that used to be mine,” she mused on the next number, a waltz, weighing the pros and cons of cultural baggage. Then she offered a soaring, bluesy tribute to Lilith, a villain in the Torah and the Bible but a heroine to feminists around the world.

The intensity kept up with another simmering, insistent minor-key number addressing the power of a woman’s voice, forbidden as a solo instrument in more than one religious tradition around the world. A vividly picturesque shout-out to Jerusalem, where Goldman has spent a lot of time, was gentler and more pastoral but also disquieted: Goldman made it clear that she felt like a stranger in a strange land. She wound up the set with a pensive, somewhat tongue-in-cheek look at the pros and cons of membership in a “tribe,” and then a swaying blues: “The season of the songbird has arrived,” Goldman asserted.

This project is likely to generate a lot of controversy, considering that Goldman celebrates her roots in centuries of rich Jewish artistic tradition while carving out an individualistic path. Being aware of the rest of her body of work, one would expect no less.