New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: bluegrass music

Grain Thief Bring Their Smart, Catchy, Picturesque Acoustic Americana to the Lower East Side This Weekend

Boston band Grain Thief distinguish themselves from the legions of fresh-faced East Coast kids packing mandolins and banjos, in that they use vintage Americana rather than emo or corporate American Idol pop as a springboard for their songs. And they tell some great stories, and have serious bluegrass chops. The five-piece group also have a new album, Stardust Lodge streaming at Spotify and a New York gig on Sept 15 at 8:30 PM at the third stage at the Rockwood. Cover is $10

The swaying opening track, Colorado Freeze strongly evokes the Grateful Dead doing their acoustic act in the early 80s around the time of the Reckoning album. The merry band in the song lyrics are riding in an old car: it’s got both a cd player and a radio in case the the other doesn’t work!

The lively, swinging Lonesome Highway finds the narrator in front of a girl behind the bar who stares right through him – the conversation that ensues will resonate with anybody who’s spent time in front of a glass that’s half empty.

I Got a Flower is closer to Wilco than bluegrass, although the interweave between the guitars of Patrick Mulroy and Tom Farrell, with Zach Meyer’s mandolin and Alex Barstow’s fiddle rising over Michael Harmon’s snappy bass, is especially tasty. As is the “hell, I’d rather drink alone” message.

The Jigsaw Outlaw is a killer instrumental that brings to mind the old folk tune Jack-a-Roe, the whole band getting into the act with some deep blues and steely picking. Irish Rose is mutedly gorgeous, a bittersweetly picturesque anthem akin to the missing link between Matthew Grimm and early Richard Buckner. “Dragged me from the world inside my phone…I drank in a supernatural bliss,” the group harmonize.

Plough Man is a rousing singalong shout-out to the guys who pull in extra bucks with their trucks in the wee hours when the snow’s coming down hard: “The truck is freezing when the heater ain’t working, just pack a jacket…when I dream I see the white and green, I suck it up with my diesel machine!”

The syncopated, animated compulsive gambler’s lament Stateline Hills is a western gothic, steel guitar-fueled take on the grim milieu of Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. Then the band pick up the pace with the Dylanesque hillbilly boogie Cookin’ and follow that with the album’s funniest track, The Bottom Shelf. In a 99 percenter’s world, desperate times call for desperate measures!

Barstow’s fiddle propels the album’s hardest-rocking track, Jealous Girl, along with the steel guitar. The band wind it up with the most epic number here, Let It Roll, nimble fingerpicking contrasting with big rock swells.

In addition to the Rockwood gig, Grain Thief play Wednesday nights at around 9 at the Burren in Davis Square at 247 Elm St. in Somerville, MA.

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Two Great Psychedelic Bands, One Free Brooklyn Concert Series

Two Saturdays ago, Sadies guitarist Dallas Good thrashed and flailed and spun the headstock of his vintage hollowbody Gretsch, building a howling vortex of sound while his brother Travis stood more or less motionless as he kept a river of jangle and clang running from his Telecaster. In the middle of the stage, bassist Sean Dean held down a steady pulse while drummer Mike Belitsky kept a nimble shuffle beat.

This past Saturday, Songhoy Blues guitarist Aliou Touré did pretty much the same thing, building a screaming Chicago blues-infused solo, his fellow axeman Garba Touré running a loping Malian duskcore pattern off to the side, bassist Oumar Touré playing a serpentine, circular riff over drummer Nathanael Dembélé’s counterintuiitive flourishes.

On one hand, the Canadian and Malian bands couldn’t have less in common. On the other, both are as psychedelic as you could possibly want. And that seems to be the theme at this year’s free outdoor concert series at Union Pool. They’ve been doing free shows in the back courtyard there for the past couple of years, but this year’s series is better than ever.

There are a lot of acts more popular than you’d expect to see in at this comfortable, comparatively small space. This year, that started with the Sadies. The last time they played New York, it was at Webster Hall (if there ever was a New York venue that deserved to be turned into a luxury condo or a Whole Foods, it was that despicable stain on the East Village). The last time this blog was in the house at a Sadies show, it was May of 2014 at Bowery Ballroom and they were playing with the late Gord Downie.

This show didn’t feature any of their brilliantly ominous songs with the late Tragically Hip crooner, but they touched on every style they’ve ever played. Dallas Good broke out his violin for a lickety-split punkgrass romp about midway through the set, and also for the encores. He also delivered some seamlessly expert acoustic flatpicking on a couple of country numbers.

Travis Good seemed to be in charge of the more epic, tectonic solos, particularly during a mini-suite of surf songs, propelled expertly by Belitsky. They went back into the waves a little later with another instrumental that came across as a more bittersweet, southwestern gothic take on the Ventures’ Apache. But it was the brooding, uneasily clanging midtempo anthems that were the high point of the show. Afterward, Dallas Good took care to thank the crowd for coming out – for a free show, no less.

Songhoy Blues are probably the loudest and most eclectic of the Malian duskcore bands to make it to the US so far. They only played a couple of the loping Saharan grooves popularized by first-wave bands like Tinariwen and Etran Finatawa. They opened with a briskly stomping, only slightly Malian-flavored garage rock tune with a searing guitar solo from Garba Touré. Throughout the set, he and the frontman took turns with their solos – a lightning-fast, Blue Oyster Cult-ish run in one of the long, hypnotic numbers midway through was the high point.

After that, they slowed down for a moody minor-key blues ballad that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Otis Rush songbook save for the lyrics. “I know that 99% of you don’t understand a word I’m saying,” Aliou Touré told the crowd: the subtext was that the band’s lyrics are potently political. Then he settled for reminding everybody that music is a universal language. After a couple of numbers that shifted between looming desert rock and frenetically bopping, metrically challenging soukous-flavored rhythms, they closed with a mighty, rising and falling anthem and encored with their lone song in English, Together, a prayer for peace from a part of the world that really needs it.

And a shout-out to the sound guy: this may be an outdoor series, but the sonics in the backyard – a completely uninsulated space with highs potentially bouncing all over the place – were pristine. Few venues sounds as good indoors as at Union Pool outdoors the past couple of Saturdays. That’s a real achievement. The Union Pool free concert series continues this Saturday, July 14 at around 3 with jangly British “power trio” Girl Ray.

Haunting Harmonies and Fierce Relevance From Bobtown at the American Folk Art Museum

When you have three multi-instrumentalists as diversely talented as Jen McDearman, Katherine Etzel and Karen Dahlstrom, who needs more people in the band? Friday night at the American Folk Art Museum, in a rare trio performance, the three core members of folk noir group Bobtown reaffirmed their status as one of the best bands in New York. Which they’re been for the past ten years.

They haven’t been playing out a lot lately since they’re in the process of making a new album.  “For those of you who know us, we’re a pretty dark band,” Dahlstrom admitted. “The new record is…more of a charcoal grey.” Which was pretty accurate: the new songs in their tantalizingly brief, headlining set were less macabre than much of the band’s back catalog, if they weren’t exactly carefree.

The band’s closing number, No Man’s Land – as in, “I am no man’s land” – brought the house down. Dahlstrom couldn’t resist telling the crowd how much more resonance this fearlessly feminist, oldtime gospel-flavored broadside has taken on in the few weeks since she’d written it. The women’s three-part harmonies spoke truth to power throughout this ferocious reclamation of women’s rights, and dreams, a slap upside the head of trumpie patriarchy.

Getting to that point was just as redemptive. The trio opened with another brand-new number, In My Bones, pulsing with vocal counterpoint. You wouldn’t expect Etzel, whose upper register has razorwire power, to hang out in the lows, but she was there a lot of the time. Likewise, Dahlstrom – best known for her mighty, gospel-infused alto – soared up in the highs. McDearman, who channels the most high-lonesome Appalachian sound of anyone in the group and usually takes the highest harmonies of all, found herself somewhere in the middle for most of it.

The rest of the new material, including the bittersweet kiss-off anthem Let You Go, had a more wry sensibility than the band’s usual ghostly chronicles. Rumble Seat, a sardonic chronicle of smalltown anomie that could just as easily be set in luxury condo-era Brooklyn as somewhere in the Midwest, was even funnier, especially when the trio reached the eye-rolling yodels on the final choruses.

The band joined voices for a 19th century field holler-style intro and then some loomingly ominous harmonies in Battle Creek, Dahlstrom’s chilling, gospel-infused chronicle of an 18th century Michigan millworker’s descent into the abyss. Throughout the evening, McDearman switched from eerily twinkling glockenspiel to atmospheric keyboards and also cowbell. Etzel, who typically handles percussion, played tenor guitar; Dahlstrom played both guitar and banjo, the latter a relatively new addition to her arsenal.

The Free Music Fridays series at the American Folk Art Museum is off this week for the holiday but resumes on July 13 at around 6 PM with a typically excellent lineup including elegantly angst-fueled, individualistic torchsong/parlor pop piano chanteuse Jeanne Marie Boes, followed by soul/gospel belter (and Lenny Molotov collaborator) Queen Esther.

And several other artists who’ve played the museum in recent months – especially when sticking around for the whole night wasn’t an option – deserve a shout. Dave Hudson treated the crowd to a catchy, anthemic set of solo acoustic janglerock. Heather Eatman played a rare mix of similarly catchy, 80s-inspired acoustic songs she’d written back then as a teenager. Jon LaDeau flexed his purist country blues guitar chops, Joanna Sternberg alternated between LOL-funny and poignant original Americana, and Miwa Gemini and her accordionist mashed up uneasy southwestern gothic and Mediterranean balladry. And as far as vocals are concerned, along with this show, the most exhilarating sets here so far this year have been by Balkan singer Eva Salina and her pyrotechnic accordionist Peter Stan, along with a rare solo show by Dahlstrom and a deliciously venomous farewell New York performance by blue-eyed soul powerhouse Jessi Robertson.

A Harrowing, Hauntingly Relevant, Apocalyptic Album and a North Carolina Stand by Curtis Eller’s New Psychedelic Band

Curtis Eller has been one of the great songwriters in any style of music since the early zeros. His music has a deep gothic Americana streak and an occasional resemblance to Tom Waits, with a similarly diverse Americana palette that spans from blues to bluegrass to the theatre music that’s become Eller’s latest focus. He’s also a magnetic live performer, and a killer storyteller (pun intended). His latest project features his new dark psychedelic band the Bipeds, who are playing this coming weekend at their dance company’s performance at the Fruit, 305 South Dillard St in Durham, North Carolina. Shows are June 21-23 at 8 PM, with an additional 6 PM performance on June 24. Cover is $15/$10 stud/srs.

The Bipeds’ haunting, Orwellian, carnivalesque debut album, 54 Strange Words, is streaming at Bandcamp. Bristling with fire-and-brimstone metaphors, it’s an assessment of how a populace can be both lulled and beaten into submission by a police state. Musically, it’s something of a departure for Eller in that the songs are both a lot longer and louder than most of his back catalog, partially due to the presence of electric guitarist Jack Fleishman (who also takes a turn on the drums). Joseph Dejarnette plays bass and baritone guitar, with Gabriel Anderson usually behind the drumkit. Stacy Wolfson, Dana Marks, Jessi Knight and William Commander all pitch in on vocals.

Eller’s spare banjo opens the first track, awash in reverb. setting the stage for this grim whodunit as it morphs into a hypnotic, loopy groove akin to early Country Joe & the Fish in 7/8 time. “Human error and blood on my hands – you want murder, man, this is one,” Eller intones.

A Ragged Sayonara, a sad, slow country waltz, features an arresting break for Marks’ mighty, theremin-like, operatic vocalese. It seems to be directed at a ghost. “Sayonara, my poison, a shadow grows into my dreams…and mercury blossoms rise through me,” Eller matter-of-factly explains.

An ominously echoey minature, The Ransom Note segues into Great Skeleton House, a creepy, slow stomp with the women in the band on vocals, dead bones assembled as some twisted kind of metaphorical home. As with the opening number, Eller kicks off the fire-and-brimstone delta blues Dressful of Dreams with spare, brooding solo banjo, then the rhythm section hits a shuffle beat and they’re off, rising to an uneasily enveloping crescendo. A funeral pyre may be involved.

A Surgical Solution is a diptych, first an Appalachian poltergeist aria, just Marks backed by Eller’s skeletal banjo. As the band shifts into an ominous, metaphorically bristling blues, the Orwellian linguistics and implications thereof, which Eller alludes to earlier in the album, finally break the surface.

Strange Words is the key to this song cycle, a sternly apocalyptic 6/8 minor-key blues that builds to another hypnotic psych-folk vamp . “There’s a human heart beating in the silence, the only thing a human heart can do,” Eller muses in typical aphoristic fashion. As his narrative grows more macabre, it’s a reminder of how similar biblical and wartime imagery are. The final cut is Amnesiac’s Grace, imagining with withering Roger Waters-style cynicism what the world would be like once everything displeasing to the dictators has been erased. Needless to say, in times like these, we need more albums like this. And if the theatrical performance even remotely echoes Eller’s bleak, uncompromising vision, it must be pretty intense.

Jamband Legends Leftover Salmon Reinvent Themselves at a Rare Small-Club Gig

What’s the likelihood of being able to see Leftover Salmon at the smallest venue the legendary jamband has probably ever played? It happened last night at Bowery Electric, a spot where you’d hardly expect to see these summer festival vets. For what it’s worth, this wasn’t the crew who made a name for themselves as jamgrass pioneers. Sure, many of the songs started out with a scampering bluegrass groove and then went further and further outside, but this new version of the group is more psychedelic than ever. Their brand-new album is aptly titled Something Higher, working an epically vamping, stylistically puddle-jumping blueprint that the Grateful Dead refined at their majestic, early 80s peak. Yet this version of Leftover Salmon are also a lot tighter than the Dead ever were.

The addition of keyboardist Erik Deutsch has completely transformed the band. He started out playing ragtime and honkytonk-influenced piano. By the time the set was over, he’d spun through lowdown clavinova funk, dub reggae, majestic art-rock synth vistas, swirly Doorsy organ interludes and a couple of wryly hobbity detours that wouldn’t have been out of place in early 70s Jethro Tull.

No matter what style they’re using as a lauching pad, this band has always been about the jam, and this show was a clinic. The trippiest, most adrenalizing tradeoffs were between Deutsch and Andy Thorn’s banjitar, which he was running through a delay pedal for a stunningly spot-on approximation of a steel pan. While Thorn’s rapidfire frailing fueled the most Appalachian-flavored moments, he was just as much a force throughout the show’s most ambitious, artsy points.

Bushy-bearded group partriarch and guitarist Vince Herman waited til the end of the set, during the cheery gospel-flavored singalong Let In a Little Light, before he fired off a series of breathtakingly effortless volleys of bluegrass flatpicking. Likewise, six-string bassist Greg Garrison hung back in the pocket for the most part, taking over lead vocals on the night’s two most vintage soul-oriented numbers. As it turns out, the band’s strongest singer is drummer Alwyn Robinson, who took over the mic on one low-key number and also harmonized with founding member/mandolinist Drew Emmitt (whose searing, tantalizingly brief Strat leads had every bit as much voltage as his endlessly machinegunning mando runs).

A Brooklyn violinist joined the group a few songs in and contributed bouncy bluegrass as well as more uneasy textures. The night’s most surreal song was House of Cards, a sticky tarpit of dub fueled by Deutsch’s tersely warpy, oscillating leads. The most exhilarating was Astral Traveler, which with its towering, gale-force chorus would have been a standout Bob Weir number in any 80s Dead second-setlist – it was easy to imagine that band taking a flying leap into it from, say, Saint of Circumstance as the show peaked out.

The new album’s title track was a launching pad for slashing Emmitt riffage and tight solos all around. The band opened both Foreign Fields and Game of Thorns as broodingly spiky, serpentine bluegrass and sailed into the clouds from there. And Burdened Heart was no less potent for being downbeat, the group eventually vamping out a long interlude midway through, Emmitt and Deutsch pawing the seeds and stems to uncover the sweetest, most pungent buds. Leftover Salmon’s endless tour continues; the next stop is this May 10 at 8 PM at the Boathouse, 11800 Merchants Walk in Newport News, Virginia; cover is $20.

Laura Cortese & the Dance Cards Bring Their Fearlessly Imaginative, Psychedelic Americana to the Rockwood

Violinist Laura Cortese & the Dance Cards stand out in a crowded Americana field for their fearlessness and originality. They aren’t the first to play retro acoustic roots music for string ensemble – a lot of classical types have a secret or not-so-secret fondness for folk music. Sadly, much as some of that crew are completely sincere, they don’t swing and they can’t really improvise. That’s where Cortese really shines. She and the band are playing the downstairs third stage at the Rockwood tomorrow night, April 14 at 11:30 PM; cover is $15.

Their latest album California Calling – streaming at Spotfy – isn’t particularly oldtimey, either. In fact, there’s only one tradtional tune on it. What Hem were to the zeros, Cortese and band are in the here and now. Case in point: the hypnotic opening track, The Low Hum, awash in hazy washes of strings, second violinist Jenna Moynihan anchoring the song on banjo, multi-instrumentalist Sam Kassirer adding woozy Dr. Dre synth. That it works as seamlessly as it does validates Cortese’s outside-the-box arrangement.

Cortese;s vocals infuse the album’s title track with warmth and intimacy amid a swirl of backing vocals, swelling strings and bouncy pizzicato: it’s not clear whether that spiky lead line is Cortese, Moynihan or cellist Valerie Thompson.

The women in the band – which also includes bassist Natalie Bohrn – join voices and then instruments in the lush, Celtic-tinged Three Little Words. If Irish chamber folk psychedelia didn’t exist before now, this band just invented it. There’s a fetching, Kasey Chanbers-ish break in Cortese’s voice in the bittersweetly swaying ballad Skipping Stone, with more spiky/atmospheric contrast.

The psychedelic Hold On, with its gospel allusions and trip-hop beat, brings to mind cult favorite New York Americana songstress Barbara Brousal – who’s since absconded to Boston. The band reinvent Swing & Turn (Jubilee), the album’s lone traditional tune, in much the same fashion, Cortese’s vocals soaring to the top of her register before the band finally cut loose with a jaunty reel.

The women’s four-part harmonies offer comfort in icy times in Rhododendron, which segues into Someday, sort of a more bluegrass-oriented take on Andrew Bird at his most bucolic. Stockholm, an allusive cautionary tale – “You’ve got to find a place to call home” – is another unlikely successful mashup of bluegrass and echoey psychedelia.

Bohrn’s starkly dancing bassline propels Pace Myself, a bluesy trip-hop number, edging from echoey Soft Cell new wave pop toward neo-soul. The album closes with If You Can Hear Me, a Taylor Ashton cover that doesn’t measure up to the strength of Cortese’s songwriting despite an interesting arrangement. It’s impossible to imagine anyone releasing more original album than this lately.

The Brooklyn Folk Festival Is Ten Years Old and Better Than Ever

Over the past decade, the Brooklyn Folk Festival has become a New York rite of passage. Like Golden Fest, Rev. Vince Anderson’s Union Pool residency, the Brooklyn Cyclones and Shakespeare in the Park, it’s something that everyone should experience at least once. It’s held over a weekend every spring, with both daytime and evening lineups; a lot of people go every year.

The best thing about the festival is that it isn’t exclusively devoted to artists who play music by the greatest and most prolific songwriter of all time – whose name varies from language to language, but invariably translates as Anonymous. This past Saturday night’s lineup featured some of that repertoire but also originals drawing on a global expanse of influences, from high-voltage Romany dance music, to moody Balkan ballads,  ecstatic Afro-Colombian trance-dance chants, honkytonk, southern gothic and jug band sounds. Which makes sense, considering that the folks at the magical Jalopy Theatre – New York’s Americana music central – put this thing together.

By the time the nighttime lineup got underway, St. Ann’s Church on Montague Street was already packed with a diverse crowd of veterans and kids hell-bent on getting the most bang for the buck out of their all-weekend or allday passes. Italian pianist/singer Luca Ferraris kicked off the evening on the stage next to the beer stand with a dynamic set of originals and a few traditional numbers that ran the gamut from bouncy dance tunes with Romany or even Russian tinges, to ballads that sometimes sauntered unexpectedly in a jazz direction. A bassist joined him about midway through and became a vocal sparring partner. Even for those in the crowd whose Italian might be limited to restaurant menu items, the songs were infectious. 

In the church’s main space, pan-Balkan singer and song reinventor Eva Salina and sorcerer accordionist Peter Stan benefited from the rich natural reverb, which added yet another layer of mystery to their distinctive versions of songs from the catalogs of iconic Romany singers Saban Bajramovic and Vida Pavlovic. Nimbly negotiating the slithery sibilances of the Romanes language, the California-born Salina channeled resilience and grace in the face of longing and abandonment, sang a cartoonishly bouncy number from the point of view of a guy overjoyed with his three-foot-tall, extremely fertile wife, and didn’t shy away from the issues of displacement and exile that permeate so much of this repertoire. Stan sized up the sonics in a split-second and maxed them out with flickering torrents of bracing minor keys and chromatics that took on new dimensions, echoing off the walls.

There was a little overlap while one of the Jalopy house bands, Skalopy, played live dub reggae and some classic Toots & the Maytals material with a lineup that included both banjo and piano. Meanwhile, in the main space, Bulla En El Barrio built a frenzy of call-and-response with their hypnotically percussive chants, which draw a straight line back from Colombia to Africa. A succession of men and women took turns leading the choir over the thunder of the percussion; they closed with an original that was as rustic and otherworldly as any of the traditional epics.

They would have been a tough act to follow, but not for Jerron Paxton, who may be the most talented musician in all of New York. Playing a longer set than any of the other acts on the bill, solo, he nonchalantly showed off his spectacular chops as oldtime acoustic blues and ragtime guitarist, fiddler, banjo and harmonica player. This time out he didn’t take a turn at the piano, but he could have. In his genial Louisiana drawl, he entertained the crowd with stories from the kind of colorful past only a musician could have…but also didn’t hesitate to remind them of the sobering reality of how many ex-slaves died of starvation after the Civil War. And you wonder why so many old blues songs mention hunger. Moving methodically between carefree proto-bluegrass fiddle, wickedly precise blues fingerpicking, ominously ancient, hypnotically percussive banjo and some fierce harmonica blues, he made it all seem easy He encored on harmonica as well, with a breathless medley of 18th century blues tunes, including Abraham Lincoln’s favorite song.

Nick Panken, frontman of high-voltage Americana crew Spirit Family Reunion, didn’t waste time admitting that they had an impossible act to follow. And they’re a great band – but loud electric rock with drums doesn’t work in a space like St. Ann’s. In that context, the matter of who was playing before or after was irrelevant. The sound people really tried their best, and the band realized what was up, so their ballads worked out ok. But when they picked up the pace, the mix was just vocals, drums and Maggie Carson’s icepick five-string banjo lines. Their songs blend bluegrass, honkytonk and oldtime string band music and they can jam like crazy. And their fan base is crazy about them. But this was the wrong venue. The Jalopy is their New York home base when they’re not on tour; they’re best experienced there.

Speaking of Jalopy people, guitarist/singer Feral Foster – who’s been running the weekly Roots and Ruckus series there since forever – was next on the bill. Looking dapper in a sharp tan suit, he crooned, picked expertly in oldtimey open tunings and took a couple of unexpected and very successful turns into ragtime and slow blues. It’s hard to think of a more original songwriter in gothic Americana. Some of the songs were tongue-in-cheek but others were not: there’s an omnipresent dark undercurrent that always grounds them in grim reality. He’s at the Jalopy virtually every Wednesday sometime after 9 PM.

Finally, at around midnight, Birmingham, Alabama’s Steel City Jug Slammers took the stage, bolstered by Ernesto Gomez and one of his bandmates from Brooklyn’s Brotherhood of the Jug Band Blues. It was amazing to watch Washtub Jay pick out swooping basslines on that clothesline string – without any tape on his fingers, either! – and play kazoo lines through a trumpet horn at the same time, and not miss a beat. Frontman Ramblin’ Ricky Tate played guitar and led the band through a sly series of shuffles and stomps as Maxwell Honeycup kept the low end going at the other side of the stage with his jug. By now, the crowd had thinned out, but these guys were not about to let anybody down.

That was it for this year’s Brooklyn Folk Festival, but a lot of these acts can be found at the Jalopy. Bulla en El Barrio are at Barbes on April 30 at around 10. Eva Salina and Peter Stan are at the American Folk Art Museum on May 4 at 5:30 PM, sharing the bill with irrepressibly fun, charming oldtimey chanteuse Tamar Korn, who can vocalize any wind instrument ever invented.. The Steel City Jug Slammers are at KGB Bar at around 9:30 PM on April 11. And Spirit Family Reunion are at the Knickerbocker, 35 Railroad Ave. in Westerly, Rhode Island on April 14 at 9 for $13 in advance.

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. 

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.