New York Music Daily

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Category: bluegrass music

A String-Driven Treat and a Park Slope Gig by Irrepressible, Fearlessly Eclectic Violinist Tom Swafford

Violinist Tom Swafford’s String Power were one of the most lavishly entertaining, surrealistically psychedelic bands to emerge in New York in this decade. Blending classical focus, swirling mass improvisation, latin and Middle Eastern grooves and jazz flair, they played both originals as well as playful new arrangements of songs from across the years and around the world. With a semi-rotating cast of characters, this large ensemble usually included all of the brilliant Trio Tritticali – violinist Helen Yee, violist Leann Darling and cellist Loren Dempster – another of this city’s most energetically original string bands of recent years. Swafford put out one fantastic album, streaming at Bandcamp, with the full band in 2015 and has kept going full steam since with his own material, notably his Songs from the Inn, inspired by his time playing in Yellowstone State Park. 

Over the last couple of years, String Power have been more or less dormant, although Swafford has a characteristically eclectic show of his own coming up on Feb 2 at 7 PM the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, where he’s a faculty member. To start the show, he’ll be playing Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Piano with pianist Emile Blondel. After that, he’ll be leading a trio with guitarist/banjoist Benjamin “Baby Copperhead” Lee and bassist Zach Swanson for a set of oldtime country blues and then some bluesy originals of his own. Cover is $15/$10 stud/srs.

The String Power album has a formidable lineup of adventurous New York classical and indie classical talent. On violins, alongside Swafford and Yee, there’s a slightly shifting cast of Mark Chung, Patti Kilroy, Frederika Krier, Suzanne Davenport and Tonya Benham; Darling and Joanna Mattrey play viola; Dempster and Brian Sanders play cello, with Dan Loomis on bass. The album opens with Tango Izquierda, Swafford’s shout-out to the Democrats regaining control of Congress in the 2006 midterm elections. Maybe we’ll get lucky again, right? This elegantly lilting number rises and falls with intricate counterpoint and a handful of frenetic Mik Kaminski-ish cadenzas.

The group reinvents new wave band the Stranglers’ synth-pop Dave Brubeck ripoff Golden Brown – an ode to the joys of heroin – with a stately neo-baroque arrangement. The Velvets’ Venus in Furs is every bit as menacing, maybe more so than the original, with a big tip of the hat to John Cale, and a Swafford solo that’s just this side of savage.

Swafford’s version of Wildwood Flower draws more on its origins in 19th century shape-note singing than the song’s eventual transformation into a bluegrass standard, with a folksy bounce fueled by spiky  massed pizzicato. Darling’s arrangement of the Mohammed Abdel Wahab classic Azizah opens with her plaintive taqsim (improvisation) over a drone, pounces along with all sorts of delicious microtones up to a whiplash coda and an outro that’s way too funny to give away.

Likewise, the otherwise cloying theme from the gently satirical 70s soap opera parody Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman gets a trick ending. Charles Mingus’ anti-segregation jazz epic Fables of Faubus gets a fullscale nine-minute workout, heavy on the composer’s relentless sarcasm. In the age of Trump, this really hits the spot with its phony martial heroics and sardonially swiping swells, Chung, Krier, Swafford and finally Loomis getting a chance to chew the scenery.

The album winds up with Swafford’s own Violin Concerto. The triptych opens with Brutal Fanfare, a stark, dynamically rising and falling string metal stomp spiced with twisted Asian motive – it makes a good segue out of Mingus. The second part, High Lonesome explores the often fearsome blues roots of bluegrass, with some wickedly spiraling Swafford violin. The conclusion, simply titled Ballad, is the most atmospheric passage here: it sounds like an Anna Thorvaldsdottir vista raised an octave or two. 

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Crooked Horse Bring Their Dark Americana to an Unexpected Friday Night Spot

Crooked Horse play disarmingly direct, catchy Nashville gothic and dark Americana. Their debut album is up at Bandcamp as a name-your-price download. They’re playing this Friday night, Jan 12 at 10:30 PM at Pine Box Rock Shop.

The album’s briskly marching opening track, Maybe, is a kiss-off anthem: it could be an acoustic version of a Walkabouts tune. “Maybe it’s everybody that leaves me with only maybe,” frontwoman Liz Rymes muses in her husky, impassioned voice. Guitarist Neal Johnson fires off a nimble flatpicking solo, then backs away for Bridget Nault’s river of minor-key accordion.

You Have to Know is a little less pissed off – “You’ll be better on your own” is the chorus – set to a catchy acoustic guitar loop over percussionist Aaron Kakos’ loping groove. The band pick up the pace with Omen and its tasty acoustic guitar multitracks: when the “wind blows in like an omen,” it’s obviously not carrying anything good.

Johnson sets a spiky, moody country-blues ambience in The Poet: “You crackle as you speak, the poet of defeat,” Rymes accuses, then the accordion and drums finally kick in. They break out the electric guitars in the snarling shuffle All For You, a brooding escape anthem – the question is who’s getting away, and to what.

The matter-of-factly defiant shuffle We Live Small makes a refreshingly optimistic anthem for the Trump-era depression: “We live small, but we live well,” Rymes asserts. The ominous vocal harmonies in the eerily strolling A Place Like This underscore the gloom, a chronicle of everything that’s out of reach in a dead-end town.

“Take a deep breath in the dark and just trust,” Rymes encourages in the moodily bouncing number after that. With its soaring, ghostly backing vocals, the scampering, bluegrass-tinged Lace Curtains is the catchiest and arguably best track on the album: “I don’t believe,” is the mantra. The album ends with Rotten, a sparse, hypnotic, anguished dirge. Catch this band on the way up before word gets out and you won’t be able to get in to see them.

Two Red Mollies Play Their Own Individualistic Americana at Pete’s

There’s going to be a rare Red Molly reunion of sorts this Nov 14 at 8:30 PM at Pete’s Candy Store when brilliantly incisive dobro player Abbie Gardner – who has a Tuesday night residency there this month – opens a twinbill with her old Red Molly bandmate, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Carolann Solebello.

Obviously, Red Molly have been back in action for awhile, with Molly Venter in Solebello’s place. The Pete’s show is a chance to hear two longtime friends and distinctive Americana artists in an intimate setting, doing their own material and very possibly working up new stuff.

The last time this blog caught up with Solebello, she was playing a fantastic twinbill at the American Folk Art Museum on a Friday night last spring with brooding New England gothic songsmith Nathaniel Bellows. With the first soaring notes of the bittersweet, opening country ballad, Brooklyn in the Rain, her strong, clear, insistent vocals were a potent reminder why she’d gotten the Red Molly gig to begin with. That, and her purist, similarly eclectic guitar chops. The fluidity of Solebello’s fretwork, whether with her chords or fingerpicking, should be the rule rather than the exception, but in what’s left of the singer-songwriter demimonde, it seldom is.

She told a funny story about her experiences as a struggling Brooklyn-born-and-raised songwriter dating an Upper West Side yuppie with season tickets to the opera, and then followed with a bouncy, pouncing, defiant, bluegrass-tinged post-breakup narrative. Like many of her songs, it was equal parts urban and bucolic, traditional and in the here and now: clearly, the dude was a fish out of water in her Lower East Side Americana scene.

That defiant quality is a consistent trait: she doesn’t feel at home in the role of victim. She added a gentle touch of vintage Judy Collins-style vibrato to a swaying, pensively catchy number after that, then brought the lights down for a fond reminiscence of her grandmother. The rest of her tantalizingly brief set was much the same, acerbic major/minor chord changes and often surprising dynamic shifts in support of vivid narratives that transcend the usual lovelorn coffeehouse girl stereotype. There will no doubt be plenty of those at the Pete’s show, times two, and maybe a duet or two.

And the ongoing Friday night series at the Folk Art Museum continues on Nov 17 at 5:30 PM with low-key, plainspoken, populist folk-pop songwriter Jeremy Aaron.

Starkly Beautiful, Weird Americana and New Classical Sounds in Williamsburg Last Night

Last night at the beautifully renovated San Damiano Mission in Williamsburg, Anna & Elizabeth joined their distinctive voices in a very colorful patchwork quilt of songs from across the centuries. Cleek Schrey, a connoisseur of little-known vintage fiddle tunes, played lilting solo pieces in odd tempos when he wasn’t sitting at the organ or the piano. Timo Andres unveiled a hypnotic new solo piano diptych awash in both Glassine echo effects and mystical Messiaenic close harmonies. And at the end, Anna Roberts-Gevalt led a packed house in a haunting, rapturously rising and falling singalong of the blues-infused African-American Virginia spiritual, Oh Lord Don’t Let Me Die in the Storm.

It was a night of envelopingly beautiful, weird Americana. On the surface, pairing oldtime folk tunes and some pre-Americana with indie classical could have opened a Pandora’s box of ridiculous segues. That this bill actually worked testifies to how much outside-the-box creativity went into it. Part of the explanation is simply how some things eventually get so old that they become new again. There’s a lot of centuries-old music that sounds absolutely avant garde, and there was some of that on this bill. For example, while there was no obvious cross-pollination between the subtly shifting cells of Andres’ piano piece and the cleverly rhythmic permutations of Schrey’s solo numbers, it was a reminder how musicians from every time period use a lot of the same devices.

There were also a handful of country gospel and Appalachian folik tunes on the bill. You could have heard a pin drop when Elizabeth LaPrelle reached for the rafters with her signature plaintive, rustic, high-midrange-lonesome wail in a solo a-cappella number. Standing in between the front pews, Roberts-Gevalt clog-danced a swinging beat and sang in perfect time, accompanied by Schrey and viola da gamba player Liam Byrne, who anchored much of the night’s material with a low, ambered, lushly bowed resonance.

Joined by a guest baritone singer, Anna & Elizabeth sang a fetchingly waltzing take of the hymn I Hear a Voice Calling. The night began with a hypnotic take of what sounded like an old Virginia reel played solo on bagpipe, a gentle reminder for the faithful to take their seats. And Anna & Elizabeth brought crankies! Each singer slowly cranked a big wooden box to unscroll a colorfully detailed portrait of the events in the other’s song. LaPrelle delivered a long, extremely detailed, ultimately pretty grim 18th century account of a shipwreck, and Roberts-Gevalt intoned a hazy nocturnal Nova Scotia lament that morphed into droning spectral string music. Anna & Elizabeth are off on European tour momentarily: lucky Lithuanians can catch them at the Keistuoliy Theatre in Vilnius on Oct 21 at 7:30 PM.

Dori Freeman Brings Her Eclectic, Tasteful Americana to the Lower East Side

The big news about Dori Freeman’s second album, Letters Never Read – streaming at NPR – is that Richard Thompson plays on it. The song where he makes a cameo bristling with his signature, shivery, incisive Strat lines, is actually pretty slight, if tastefully assembled by Thompson’s son Teddy.

Much as it takes nerve to ask Richard Thompson to play on your album, it takes even more to cover the iconic Richard & Linda Thompson anthem I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight. OK, it’s not the original, but Freeman’s version does it justice, with some clever psychedelic touches. The rest of the album is more trad, and mines the same diverse Americana styles she explored in her debut album last year. And for what it’s worth, it’s somewhat less gloomy.. She’s playing the big room at the Rockwood this Thursday, Oct 19 at 8:15 PM; cover is $12.

Freeman gets a lot of props for her voice, and she’s earned that: it wouldn’t be overhype to compare her subtle, curlicuing blue notes in the second track, Just Say It Now, to Laura Cantrell. The pulsing country soul of Lovers on the Run brings to mind early 70s Melba Montgomery – Freeman gives it a more wintry delivery over Nick Falk’s almost martial drumbeat and Roy Williams’ steady piano chords:

I’ve looked into another’s eyes
When all the world was still
And just as I began to fall
They went in for the kill

From there Freeman mixes it up. With Alex Hargreaves and Duncan Wickel on austere fiddles, Cold Waves has a hazy, slowly vamping 70s Britfolk ambience, perhaps due to the Thompsons’ presence here. Freeman sings the bouncy Roger Miller-ish bluegrass tune Ern & Zorry’s Sneakin’ Bitin’ Dog a-cappella; Falk switches to banjo for the similarly retro, trickily syncopated take of the country gospel tune Over There.

Is that tubular bells, or one of those portable organs that Thompson likes to use, on the spare singalong Turtle Dove? Both, maybe? Likewise, the kiss-off anthem That’s All Right has a similar, muted nocturnal atmosphere, blending Jon Graboff’s spare steel guitar with piano and layers of guitar. It’s not clear who’s playing what: Neal Casal and Kacy & Clayton also contribute to the album. It winds up with a wry vocal-and-drums cover of Jim Reeves’ Yonder Comes a Sucker. If you go for eclectic Americana tunesmithing, purist playing, an unselfconsciously nuanced voice and lyrics that jump out and bite you when least expected, Dori Freeman is for you.

Bobtown Foreshadow Halloween at This Year’s Brooklyn Americana Festival

It’s impossible to think of a better band than Bobtown to kick off Halloween month. The stars of the Saturday portion of this year’s Brooklyn Americana Festival last week put on a spellbinding show that ranged from the brooding folk noir they got their start with back in the late zeros, through the starkly rhythmic chain gang sounds they were exploring earlier this decade, to a handful of new tunes where the band’s frontline became the Andrews Sisters’ evil twins.

There’s no other Americana band with three voices as distinctive and gleefully sinister as this Brooklyn crew. Frontwoman/drummer/accordionist Katherine Etzel probably has the most range, and seems to draw the most on austere 19th century gospel sounds. Guitarist Karen Dahsltrom, with her powerful alto, can also belt out a gospel tune with anybody – she could probably get a stone sphinx to levitate if she really cut loose with everything she’s got. Jen McDearman has the highest voice of the three and writes the most blithely sinister songs of anyone in the band. Guitarist Alan Lee Backer channeled fifty years of classic C&W, bluegrass and honkytonk behind the three women, switching to banjo on one of the later tunes as the bassist anchored the soaring, often otherworldly harmonies.

Their songs are more eclectic than ever, and this show followed suit. Dahlstrom took the lead vocal on their opening number: outlaw stoner bluegrass wouldn’t be a completely off-the-wall description. The women’s voices delivered a cynical round-robin exchange in Rumble Seat, a chronicle of drudgery and debauchery in what could be just about any dead-end town on the planet, Brooklyn included.

The carefree lilt of Magilla Lee and Resurrection Mary contrasted with the macabre lyrics about ghosts and those soon to be. Dahlstrom went back to lead the group through the most enveloping church-in-the-wildwood number, Across the River. They also ran through a bouncy pastoral number that might have been about a public execution, and a triumphant arsonist’s anthem – although that could be strictly metaphorical. Bobtown recently put together the first annual Hudson West Folk Festival at Cathedral Hall in Jersey City this past month; watch this space for future shows, and a long-awaited follow-up to their brilliant 2015 album A History of Ghosts.

Everybody’s Favorite Americana Harmony Trio, Red Molly, Make a Triumphant Return to City Winery

Is there another Americana band with as individualistic and spine-tingling a blend of voices as Red Molly? Actually yes – Bobtown, who played the Brooklyn Americana Festival on Saturday. More about them later.

Red Molly’s first New York show in two years last night at City Winery was epic. The harmony trio of dobro player Abbie Gardner, guitarists Molly Venter and Laurie MacAllister really give you a lot of bang for your buck. In two long sets, bolstered by bassist Craig Akin and Roosevelt Dime guitarist/percussionist Eben Pariser, they played a wickedly fun, dynamic mix of originals and a bunch of choice covers.

Each group member has a solo album in progress: MacAllister fretted about how the trio would be able to “shoehorn the songs into a Red Molly show,” but everything worked seamlessly. As usual, the women took turns on lead vocals, often in the same number. Venter took centerstage on one of the best of the new songs, Cold Black Water, a portrait of an indomitable single mother making a new start on the rugged Oregon coast, rising from an enigmatic, quiet suspense on the verse to a ferociously anthemic payoff on the chorus. Another standout was a hauntingly muted ballad by Gardner, told from the point of view of a war veteran’s wife who’s watching her wounded warrior trying to keep himself together.

And the voices were sublime. Gardner has jazz bloodlines and Venter is a connoisseur of Texas Americana, with blue notes peeking out from every secret corner. MacAllister contrasts with a disarmingly direct delivery. And while there was plenty of the usual banter between the group and what seemed to be a sold-out crowd, MacAllister came across as the ringleader in this merry band. Introducing a rousing number inspired by a gig in Alaska that wound up with a dude in the crowd throwing a taxidermied fox onto the stage, she related how, for a woman in a state with a gender imbalance, “The odds were good, but the goods were odd.”

The best song of the night was When It’s All Wrong. Gardner’s dobro slid and slithered through every macabre passing tone in the scale as her voice channeled a bitterness and menace that Lana Del Rey and all the other wannabe noir pinups would die to have written.                   

The covers were choice, beginning with the famous Richard Thompson tune from which they take their name. Gardner drew lots of chuckles with a sly little dobro lick on the intro to Crazy, which Venter sang with a nuance that would have made Patsy Cline proud. The three-part harmonies, backed by just bass, on The Fever were a lot of fun, while the group’s most calmly rapturous moment was their a-capella take of their original May I Suggest. As long as Red Molly are still together and touring – something that didn’t seem likely a couple of years ago – maybe, despite the madmen in the White House, we are truly living in the best years of our lives. The darkest times sometimes produce the greatest art. Red Molly’s current tour continues on Oct 6 at at the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley, CA; advance tix are $25.

Next month is a particularly good one at City Winery, Just for starters, Willie Nile – the world’s most obvious choice to sing Dylan – does that on the 10th at 8 PM: tix are expensive, $30, but this could be an awful lot of fun. And then there’s a killer twinbill on the 15th at 8 with blue-eyed soulstress and fiery guitarslinger Miss Tess followed by one of the great songwriters in noir Americana, Eilen Jewell, for $20.

And Gardner has a solo show at Pete’s on Oct 17 at 8:30 PM

Smart, Innovative, Unpredictably Brilliant Newgrass Guitarist Jon Stickley and His Trio Hit Williamsburg This Weekend

Guitarist Jon Stickley gets major props for his daunting chops, mashing up bluegrass with jazz, Romany and south-of-the-border sounds. His instrumentals follow unexpected tangents through all those styles and more, with a bright, cinematic effect. He and his trio’s 2016 ep, Triangular is streaming at Bandcamp, and they’re playing the Knitting Factory on Sept 17 on a strange but solid triplebill. Skronky Chicago guitar improvisers Tacoma Narrows open the night at 8, followed by Stickley and then Minneapolis newgrassers the Last Revel headlining at 10: $12 adv tix are available.

The album’s opening track, Blackburn Brothers gives you a good idea of where Stickley’s coming from. It opens as a shuffling, moody, minor-key bluegrass tune but then Stickley throws some fluid Romany jazz phrases in, echoed by violinist Lyndsay Pruett as drummer Patrick Armitage keeps a steady, swaying beat. They make straight-ahead, emphatic rock out of it at the end.

Plain Sight has a wary, dancing, insistent pulse – with different instrumentation and a heavier beat, this cinematic theme could be metal, at least until the trio hit a warmly windswept big-sky interlude midway through.

Palm Tree is a jaunty tropical number set to a tricky beat: as Stickey flatpicks and spirals around, Brazilian psychedelic rainforest jammers Forro in the Dark come to mind. With its constantly shifting chords,Echolocation is the killer track here, Stickley’s fluttery tremolo-picking adding border-rock ambience to a brisk, gorgeously bittersweet, Lynchian theme. Stickley even sticks a baroque fugue in toward the end!

Manzanita, the final cut, blends verdant Britfolk, bluegrass and a little Doorsy latin noir over a propulsive, steady beat. No doubt this album and the rest of Stickley’s innovative catalog  will be available at the show: Punch Brothers, eat your heart out.

There’s Nothing Jorge Glem Can’t Play on the Cuatro

Last night before the show at Joe’s Pub, the trippy sounds of cumbia icons Chicha Libre’s Canibalismo album wafted through the PA, a very good omen. Like Chicha Libre’s Olivier Conan, Venezuelan wizard Jorge Glem plays the cuatro, the shortscale Pan-American four-stringed instrument. The C4 Trio co-founder explained that he wants to bring that spiky little axe into every style of music around the world…and if there’s anybody who has the chops to do that, it’s Glem. You can watch the whole show at youtube.

He drew plenty of laughs for his account of how he came to play it. As a small child, he wanted to be a percussionist, but his mom wouldn’t let him use the family pots and pans. But there was a cuatro hanging on the wall of his home in Cumaná, a common sight in a neighborhood where it was more kitschy decor than anything else. With a big grin, he vigorously delivered the very first sounds he was able to get out of it: mimicking the beats of a conga by banging on the instrument’s body while muting the strings, first at the sound hole and then right at the headstock for highs and lows. Throughout the show, he also made it sound like a banjo, a mandolin, a flamenco guitar, a pandeiro, many different drums, a mosquito and a jet engine among other things.

Guest clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera also related a funny anecdote about Blues for Sonny, a Sonny Rollins tribute by Toots Thielemans that D’Rivera had recorded with the late jazz harmonica player. Michel Camilo heard it and said to D’Rivera, “That’s a Venezuelan tune! What does Sonny Rollins have to do with Venezuela?” So it would make sense for D’Rivera to play that warmly bouncing number with Glem. The two followed with A Night in Tunisia, which D’Rivera had first thrown at Glem at an impromptu performance at the National Arts Club…and was amazed to find that Glem knew it. That was a showcase for Glem’s postbop phrasing, but then again, so was Glem’s opening solo improvisation.

Joined by accordionist Sam Reider, Glem mashed up what sounded like an Irish reel, a high lonesome Applachian dance, vallenato and champeta, maybe, throwing in a boisterous improvisation midway through. Likewise, guitarist Yotam Silberstein playfully jousted with Glem throughout a shapeshifting blend of Caribbean coastal folk, postbop and some of the most fluidly legato Django Reinhardt ever played.

The final guest was singer Claudia Acuña, who held the crowd in the palm of her hand with her bittersweetly nuanced low register throughout a couple of ballads in both English and Spanish. Glem encored with a final, chord-chopping solo piece that quoted liberally from Bach and Beethoven, and maybe Yomo Toro and Dick Dale too. How Glem managed to get through that one without breaking either strings or his fingers is a mystery that has yet to be solved. No wonder there’s a documentary film being made about his crazy cuatro cross-pollinations here in New York. 

Blick Bassy, Cameroonian Connoisseur of Americana, Brings His Spare, Surreal Songs to Lincoln Center

Spare, mournful cello rises in the background, awash in reverb, over a stark, muted minor-key acoustic guitar riff. It’s the blues, straight from Africa but refracted back through the relentless heat of the Mississippi Delta. There’s longing in the catchy vocal hook that Blick Bassy sings in one of many of his native Cameroonian vernaculars. That’s the title track on his album Ako, streaming at Spotify. Bassy cites the otherworldly Skip James as a major influence, but that’s hardly the only one.

It wouldn’t be an overstatement to call Bassy a connoisseur of Americana in general. He’s bringing his eclectically dynamic, individualistic sound to the atrium space at Lincoln Center on Broadway just north of 62nd St. tomorrow night, July 13 at 7:30 PM. The show is free; getting there early is a good idea because a good crowd always shows up for these events.

Bassy switches to banjo, joined by the looming harmonies of Clément Petit’s cello and Johan Blanc’s trombone on the album’s second track, a jaunty hot 20s swing tune, sung with contrasting restraint. In the next song he takes that sound forward half a century for a surreal mashup of what sounds like Acadian folk and Nick Drake. Throughout the album, cello and trombone are frequently overdubbed for a lush, orchestral effect.

From there, rhythms vary from a balmy sway to the circling gait of Saharan Tuareg folk. Imagine a Malian guitar griot like Boubacar Traore, for example, scaling back his songs to two and a half minutes. Stylistically, the album runs the gamut from the bittersweetness of  Scots-American folk tunes,, to bouncy Appalachian string band music, to maybe Bill Monroe. Petit is similarly eclectic, sometimes a one-man orchestra, sometimes a bass player, sometimes adding spiky lower-register kora phrases

Screaming wifi isn’t exactly easy to find in Cameroon. Either Bassy was lucky enough to have internet access from a young age, or he was able to get his hands on a fantastic record collection. The Lincoln Center atrium is programmed with seemingly every culture base in the world’s most storied melting pot in mind; it’ll be interesting to see who turns out for this one.