Free Music Fridays at the American Folk Art Museum: Good Times and Good Tunesmithing

by delarue

One of this city’s most consistently fun weekly events is Free Music Fridays at the American Folk Art Museum at Lincoln Square, just across the street from the uptown 1 train exit at 66th Street. Even if you can’t get out of work in time to catch the 5:30 PM opening act, the show typically goes til a little after 7. The crowd is a mix of local kids, retirees, tourists and friends of the bands, and wine is available for a donation to the museum.

Lara Ewen – a modest and unselfconsciously brilliant folk noir singer and a strong tunesmith as well – books a diverse mix of mostly acoustic songwriters as well as oldtime folk, blues and Americana performers. She draws on a deep pool of New York talent, including many acts from the Jalopy scene, plus the occasional national touring artist. The natural reverb in the museum’s high-ceilinged atrium adds a cathedral-like ambience: many acts like to play here unamplified. Lately there have been shows pretty much every week, a positive development considering that the series went on a lengthy hiatus last summer to accommodate one of the museum’s many, constantly changing exhibitions. This Friday’s show is a particularly good one, with Beatlesque popsinger Jeff Litman, Clifford Westfall and Girls on Grass‘ paisley underground guitarist/frontwoman Barbara Endes, and Americana guitar genius Tom Clark.

This year has been an especially good one at the museum so far. The highight of February’s shows was Jessi Robertson, who didn’t waste any time warning the crowd that most of her songs mine pretty disturbing territory. In one number which had to with stab wounds, she revealed that her hands have an inherited tendency to get a little shaky in pubilc: not part of the skillset that makes a good slasher. In a mix of artsy but terse post-PJ Harvey acoustic rock as well as older, more opaque material, Robertson aired out her signature, throaty, otherworldly wail, channeling sheer emotional destitution, alienation and abandonment – and some good jokes. The funniest number in her set had a title along the lines of “I hope I hurt you more than you hurt me.” Robertson plays at around 9 this Saturday, April 25 at Pine Box Rock Shop, opening for her lead guitarist Rony Corcos’ excellent power trio Rony’s Insomnia.

March was a good month. Eva Salina, one of the world’s great Balkan singers, joined forces with her longtime collaborator, whirlwind Romany accordionist Peter Stan for a dynamically intense run through songs from her latest album Lema Lema: The Songs of Saban Bajrmovic. A global Romany icon, Bajrmovic was sort of a Balkan mashup of Al Green, Hank Williams and Jim Morrison. That it took an American woman – Salina is a friendly Californian with an ethnomusicology degree from UC/Santa Cruz – to bring his songs to a larger audience is pretty radical. And while she expertly voiced the difficult clusters of the Romanes language in an often heartwrenchingly nuanced, otherworldly chromatic run through songs about unrequited love, gambling and Romany pride, she told the crowd that the star of the evening would be Stan. She wasn’t kidding. With a pedal to the metal, he shredded the reeds on his deluxe model with lightning cadenzas, cascades up and down the scale and enough minor keys to drown your sorrows in a thousand times over.

Along with lustrous tunesmith Sharon Goldman – whose often harrowing, deeply personal account of coming to grips with her roots as a secular Jewish artist has been chronicled here in detail – other March artists here included Heather Eatman, Joanna Sternberg and Chris Michael. The last time this blog caught a show by Eatman…well, this blog, or any other blog for that matter, didn’t exist back in the fall of 2003 when she played the old Living Room at the corner of Stanton and Allen. She hasn’t lost a step since then; if anything, she’s even more interesting as a singer and tunesmith. She hasn’t changed her formula much: uneasy, unresolved verses building from open chords into sudden, head-on, impactfully catchy choruses. Her voice still has both the coy chirp and the moody, monsoon resonance; her lyrics add an edge and bite. Interestingly, she used this show to run through a handful of songs she’d written as a teenager back in the early 90s, which, if a little simpler, stood up against her more recent material. Eatman is at the small room at the Rockwood next month sometime.

Sternberg is a cutup and an irrepressible bon vivant. She made herself laugh as much as the audience. She’s charming and funny and unlike most adults, hasn’t lost touch with how it feels to be a kid. Her funniest number was a kids’ song directed at a stubborn little girl who doesn’t want to get in the shower. But Sternberg doesn’t talk down to kids: this one eventually revealed that the little girl is actually a little spooked by the water, and that all it took was a little sympathy to get her to pull herself together and wash up. Sternberg’s material for a drinking-age demographic was more nuanced, including a bittersweetly meta breakup song, a couple of more romping, upbeat front-porch folk originals and a detour into pensive vintage Appalachian balladry. Sternberg’s next gig is at the Jalopy Tavern (adjacent to the big main space) on April 28 at 9.

And this past Friday, Michael transcended any cheap Tom Waits comparisons, impressing with his fluency in a whole slew of southern blues, soul and gospel-inflected material. He’s a good guitarist and doesn’t fake the drawl like so many of his yankee counterparts, entertaining the crowd with a mix of upbeat numbers that occasionally brought to mind a less cynical Dan Hicks.