Amy Allison Brings Her Poignant, Distinctive Voice and Songcraft to the East Village Folk Festival

by delarue

For the past six months, Amy Allison has held down a monthly Saturday night residency at Dixon Place with pianist Lee Feldman. It’s an amazing collaboration. The daughter of jazz piano icon Mose Allison, she made her mark in the 90s as the best songwriter to come out of what was known then as alt-country. Revered by her peers – Elvis Costello appears on one of her albums, and Emmylou Harris’ most recent release contains an Amy Allison cover – she maintains a devoted cult following here.

Feldman, an briliant and similarly poignant songwriter in his own right, has an intuitive grasp of Allison’s songs. He interprets them line by line, shifting from rapt, starlit neoromantic glimmer, to earthy gospel, to wry Floyd Cramer C&W, sometimes in the space of a few bars (for what it’s worth, he also has a thing for Bach, and jazz, and film and tv themes, and wrote one of the few childrens’ musicals worth seeing). He and Allison share an irrepressible, sometimes devastating sense of humor: when those two decide to ham it up for a bar or two, the result is killer. On June 19 at 7 PM, Allison is venturing beyond her usual turf to play the East Village Music Folk Festival at Theatre 80 St. Marks; $10.50 tix are available.

This month’s installment of Allison’s Lower East Side residency was a lot of fun. The house is usually packed when she plays: this time out, with thunderclouds looming in from across the Hudson and media hysteria about a deluge that never came, it was a more intimate gathering. Her distinctive, disarmingly direct yet minutely nuanced voice was in top shape, part pilowy velvet, part twang. Even by Allison’s standards, the set was an especially choice one, a mix of favorites, rarities and a couple of unexpected covers. The two opened with the gently swaying, characteristically bittersweet Beautiful Night, Feldman adding Beethovenesque upper-register lustre. They followed with a mutedly tender, understatedly longing take of Anywhere You Are Is Where I Am.

“You turned my silver heart into stainless steel,” she intoned in Silver Stone, a rare gem dating from her earliest C&W days. Another obscurity, Blueberry Pie, echoed hokum blues and 19th century folk with its droll dessert metaphors. Blue Plate Special, a vivid, Jarmusch-style early 80s Memphis tableau, drew on vintage soul music and also the time she’d spent living there, and made a good segue.

Bette Davis, a new one, has become a big hit with the crowd, and will resonate with anybody who ends the night glued to Turner Classics. Allison put down her guitar as Feldman channeled her dad’s erudite blues in a cover of his Vietnam War-era classic Everybody’s Crying Mercy – as relevant now as it was then. She told the crowd that both Ella Fitzgerald and Shirley Temple had done Goodnight My Love; this version turned out to be closer to Blossom Dearie.

Another new number, Angel Face, was classic Allison, a catchy, poignantly optimistic number, but as usual Allison had something up her sleeve; meanwhile, Feldman mashed up gospel and Schubert. The best song of the night was also its most ornate, a lushly gorgeous take of the gently ominous Come Sweet Evening. She closed with the richly plaintive Goodbye Lovers Lane, a song that wouldn’t be out of place in the Roy Wood/Move catalog, and encored with Dream World, which crystallizes her worldview better than the more famous sad-girl song that first put her on the map. Allison has been writing up a storm of good songs over the past year or so; Sunday’s East Village show could be a launching pad for a whole bunch of them.