A Look Back at Last Year’s Vocal Summit With Amanda Thorpe and Her Siren Friends
More about that Amanda Thorpe show coming up on June 13 at 8 PM at Hifi Bar. She’s playing in the intimate space in the back, where the Britfolk and chamber pop songwriter – the closest thing to Linda Thompson that this generation has produced – will be joined by guitarists Don Piper and her longtime Bedsit Poets bandmate Edward Rogers.
Mary Lee Kortes was one of three other women who joined Thorpe late last year onstage at the Treehouse at 2A for a summit meeting of four of the most haunting voices in all of rock. It was one of the half-dozen most spellbinding shows of the year: vocally speaking, no other performance all year came close. The quartet of Thorpe, Kortes, Lianne Smith and Debby Schwartz each played guitar, singing in the round, trading songs, joining voices as duos and trios and once or twice in four-part harmony: pure, unaffected, spine-tingling intensity.
Thorpe has an ambered delivery that can be either coyly fun or woundedly resigned in the low registers, but when she cuts loose and soars way up, that’s when the firepower really kicks in. Likewise, Smith channels hushed nunace as much as poignancy, has a spun-steel upper register and has never written better than she’s doing now. With her metalcutter crystalline tone and ability to effortlessly leap octaves, Kortes is probably one of the half-dozen best singers in the world, never mind the rock world. Schwartz, the former Aquanettas frontwoman, might have the most distinctive voice of all four singers, both plaintive and atmospheric with a tinge of grit. She and Smith – who also draws on rockabilly, Americana and psychedelia – share an indie rock background. Kortes draws on all sorts of Americana, and like Thorpe is equally adept at jazz.
Smith had her Strat with the reverb turned up as she usually does. A typically allusive new number parsed the understated ache and longing from eyes that are “bright, bright, bright” in circumstances that are hardly “right, right, right” – chilling, especially in contrast to the power she unleashed on the chorus. A spare, skeletal, southern soul-tinged new song gave her a platform for the kind of simmering vengeance that Dusty Springfield would have killed for.
Schwartz aired out the sardonic, understatedly brooding Dreaming New York City in the Middle of LA and also the evening’s high point among many, a viscerally spine-tinglingtake of the otherwise enigmatic, minor-key anthem Hills of Violent Green. Kortes’s high points were the wickedly catchy, darkly chromatic, soaring Vegas noir-tinged Learn from What I Dream and the jaunty, uneasily defiant oldtimey swing tune Big Times, along with a swinging, embittered, coiled-cobra new song that might have been the evening’s single best number.
Joining voices with Treehouse impresario and guitar monster Tom Clark, Thorpe elevated a sad Everly Brothers song far above early 60s folk-revival stuff, to the level of something from the Skooshny catalog, maybe. She channeled the most nuance of anyone, especially in a handful of shadowy, noir-tinged reinventions of Great American Songbook jazz-pop from the Yip Harburg catalog, which she memorably recorded in 2014. A longtime staple of the Lower East Side scene back when it was about art far more than commerce, she rarely makes it back to town these days: if you missed her the first time around, now’s your chance not to miss out again.