New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: blues music

An Ominously Glimmering Free Download from Brian Carpenter & the Confessions

While the latest album by Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra is more blithe and cartoonish than their previous, more noir-inspired material, the trumpeter/multi-instrumentalist’s other project, Brian Carpenter & the Confessions haven’t lightened up any. Their show last fall at Drom on an amazing triplebill with New York’s most cinematic noir band, Big Lazy and gonzo soul band the Claudettes was one of the year’s best. They’ve also have a live Folkadelphia Sessions ep up at Bandcamp as a free download.

There are three ominous, slightly surreal tracks, perfect for Halloween. Guitarist Andrew Stern and violinist Jonathan Lamaster build sinisterly clanging, reverbtoned ambience to kick off the first one, Lazarus, Carpenter’s wintry voice intoning Old Testament gloom and doom over the steady backdrop of bassist Tony Leva and drummer Gavin McCarthy. The bandleader adds a gorgeously funereal, tremoloing Farfisa organ solo as well.

Falling From You is a bolero as Nick Cave might do it. The final cut is Far End of the World, a Tom Waitsian noir soul ballad, Carpenter’s spare, ominous guitar anchoring the faux-blithe vocals of Jen Kenneally and Georgia Young.

If you haven’t discovered the Folkadelphia Sessions, you can get pretty lost there. This vast series of live free download recordings isn’t limited to crunchy music, either: artists as diverse as Anais Mitchell, Devotchka and Marissa Nadler – who’s recorded two sessions – all have releases in the catalog.

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Delgrès Bring Their Politically-Charged Electric Update on French Caribbean Folk to Joe’s Pub

Delgrès are one of the most refreshingly unique and relevant bands around. Their sound is an often surreal, propulsively catchy mashup of amped-up French Caribbean folk, electric blues and New Orleans groove, with occasional detours into garage rock and even loping Saharan psychedelia. The trio play a mix of originals and allusive, sardonic traditional Guadeloupian freedom fighter songs from the 1920s and 30s…with guitar, drums and sousaphone. As hard-hitting as much of this music is, the lyrics can be surprisingly subtle and allusive, no surprise considering that the originators of many of these songs were living under an occupation. The group’s new album Mo Jodi (Die Today) is streaming at Spotify, and they’re playing Joe’s Pub on Sept 25 at 9:30 PM. General admission is $20.

The opening track, Respecte Nou is a romping garage rock tune, closer to the Yardbirds or the early Pretty Things covering Sonny Boy Williamson than, say, the White Stripes. In place of a bass, Rafgee’s  sousaphone is more prominent here than it is on the other tracks. The lyrics address self-respect and the need to stand up to the boss. Here’s a rough translation from the original Kreyol:

We’ve been shifting wine
Moving rum
Handling cotton
Today this all has to stop!

The album’s title track is a defiant revolutionary anthem inspired by the band’s namesake, 18th century Guadeloupian freedom fighter Louis Delgrès. Set to a Mississippi hill country blues stomp, the message is essentially “I’d rather die than slave for you.”

Mr. President opens with a hilarious Lyndon Johnson sample, then drummer Baptiste Brondy hits a hard-hitting sway and guitarist Pascal Danaë blends lingering jangle, keening slide licks and Pink Floyd resonance. The lyric is a plea directed at an unnamed authority figure instead of anyone specific.

Vivre Sur la Route (Life on the Road) is a lilting love song with echoes of Jamaican mento (the shuffling folk style that spawned calypso and then roots reggae). Séré Mwen Pli Fo (Hold Me Tighter) rises unexpectedly toward stadium-rock heft, with a vocal cameo from chanteuse Skye Edwards. Then the band add tinges of circling, hypnotic Malian desert rock over boisterous syncopation in Can’t Let You Go.

Ti Manmzel (slangy translation: My Sweetheart) could be the White Stripes taking a stab at reggae, a come-on from a musician onstage to a cute girl in the audience. Anko, a triumphant protest anthem, is a return to the north Mississippi/Mali blend. Set to the album’s most dynamic, bitingly majestic backdrop, Ramene Mwen (Take Me Back) is a characteristically sardonic example of the corrosively allusive lyrics that pervade much of Guadeloupian freedom-folk: if you don’t like how my rice and peas smell, let me go back to Africa, the narrator tells the slaver.

The album closes with the hypnotic riffs of Chak Jou Bon Di Fe (Every Single Day), a protest song, then the muted, spare Pardone Mwen (Forgive Me), which could be about familial angst or something more metaphorical. And just when you think the album’s over, wait! There’s more! At Lincoln Center back in July, the band put on a show every bit as energetic as this album, which bodes well for the Joe’s Pub gig.

The Bryant Park Accordion Festival: Like a Free, Weekly Midtown Golden Fest

The Bryant Park accordion festival is like a free Midtown version of Golden Fest – except without the food. It could also be said that Golden Fest is a two-night, Brooklyn version of the Bryant Park festival, without the blankets and the lawn chairs. Either way, each is a bucket-list experience for New Yorkers. You’ll have to wait til next January 12-13 for Golden Fest 2019, but starting at 5:30 PM every Wednesday through Sept 12, you can see pretty much every global style of accordion music in Bryant Park. The grand finale is on Friday the 14th starting a half hour earlier.

While Golden Fest is a marathon feast that lasts into the wee hours, you can pop into Bryant Park after work and hang out for however long you want. Five different performers play short sets starting on the half hour at five different stations throughout the park until 7:30. Golden Fest is this country’s big celebration of music from across the Balkans and to some extent, the Middle East. While styles from those parts of the world are also part of the Bryant Park festival, so far there’s been a lot of music from south of the border.

It was fun to stop in by a couple of weeks ago to catch a set by Erica Mancini, who pretty much embodies what the festival is all about, considering how vast her stylistic range is. Last year she did blues and swing; her show last week was a slinky mix of cumbia, tango and a bolero. Playing both instrumentals and sad ballads and and singing in nuanced, plaintively modulated Spanish, she was backed by a sensationally good mandolinist who ran through a pedalboard for icy, watery textures, trippy delays and gritty noise loops.It was as if Chicha Libre got back together…with an even better singer out front.

Last week’s show was on the hottest day of the year. That Rachelle Garniez managed to get through four sets without sitting down, with that big box strapped to her back, was impressive enough. That she sang as soaringly and powerfully as she ever has, in that heat, was even more so. She’s probably the best songwriter of the past twenty years, bar none – and that’s not meant as a dis to Steve Wynn, or Hannah Fairchild, or Aimee Mann. Methodically and even energetically, Garniez made her way through Tourmaline, a wistful yet forcefully determined individualist’s waltz, then worked her way up from a suspenseful, atmospheric intro into the strutting, coy hokum blues innuendos of Medicine Man.

She flipped the script on Aesop by reimagining the tale of the ant and the grasshopper in a fairer world where a bon vivant shouldn’t have to choose antlike drudgery to survive. She also treated the crowd on the terrace on the Sixth Avenue side to a deadpan verse or two of the Stones’ Paint It Black – which in its own surreal way was just as twistedly fun as the Avengers’ cover – and also the lilting, pre-apocalyptic tropicalia of Silly Me, from her 2000 album Crazy Blood.

And playing button accordion, fiery Venezuelan Harold Rodriguez really worked up a sweat, backed by supple bass and percussion in a literally volcanic set of rapidfire cumbias, a merengue tune and a handful of vallenato standards that got the expat crew singing along. He’s at Barbes with the group on Sept 17 at 9:30 PM

This week’s installment of the festival, on Sept 5 starting at 5:30 PM features singer Eva Salina and accordionist Peter Stan playing haunting Romany ballads,  Cordeone doing Portuguese fado laments, bandoneonist Laura Vilche playing tango, and Romany swing accordionist Albert Behar, among many others.

A Colorful, Grittily Lyrical New Album and a Rare New York Show by Americana Rocker Kevin Gordon

Kevin Gordon writes funny, acerbic, growlingly guitar-fueled Americana rock songs that bring to mind both Steve Earle and Tom Waits. Like those two, Gordon’s starkly detailed narratives typically fixate on a colorful cast of down-and-out characters, but his music tends to rock harder. His latest album Tilt and Shine is due to his his Bandcamp page on July 27. He’s making a rare New York appearance on July 23 at 7 PM at the third stage at the Rockwood; cover is $15.

The opening cut, Fire At the End of the End of the World is a hoot, Gordon welding a gritty boogie blues riff to a swaying rock tune. This chronicle of how alarmist antidrug sermonizing can backfire will resonate with any past or present teenage burnout. The Memphis soul-infused Saint on a Chain is a similarly fearless hellraiser anthem. “Make it here, your chance is slim/People get out, you never see ‘em again.” Gordon explains in his weatherbeaten Louisiana drawl. “She kicked me out and changed the locks, on my motel door.” But by the end of the song, this guys’ still driving way over the speed limit with one hand on the wheel.

The careening shuffle One Road Out (Angola Rodeo Blues) is a dead ringer for Mississippi hill country blues legend RL Burnside. Gordon’s Louisiana prison guard narrator offers his view of the guys inside that notorious lockdown:

Everyone’s a preacher
Inside a prison cell
If they ever leave here living
They leave Jesus in the jail

The regret-laced anthem Gatling Gun references a Pink Floyd classic over a bed of rustling acoustic and electric guitars:

I could take a razor to my blank stare
Bleed out every memory of her in there

The rig-rock anthem Right on Time has a choogling, Tex-Mex tinged post-Chuck Berry groove, bringing to mind the Del-Lords and Bottle Rockets. Gordon brings the lights down for the surrealistically enveloping swamp noir nocturne DeVall’s Bluff:

Frogs in the night
Ain’t no riverboat light
Still water don’t talk much
Newspaper headline
From weeks gone by:
The death of the Star City judge

Once again, Gordon’s guitar adds dark Pink Floyd grandeur.

Gordon follows Drunkest Man in Town, an unexpectedly grim, Stonesy cautionary tale with the spare, acoustic, Willie Nelson-ish ballad Rest Your Head: “I can see that bird but I’m a fool if I think it’s singing just for me,” Gordon muses. He closes the album with a catchy, shuffling anthem, Get It Together, the album’s most ecologically and socially relevant (and cynical) track. Fans of the shrinking world of artists who set smart lyrics to catchy tunes can’t go wrong with this one. 

Hard-Hitting, Historically Rich Guadeloupe/New Orleans Mashups with Delgres at Lincoln Center

Last night at Lincoln Center, Delgrès guitarist Pascal Danaë opened the trio’s headlining set with a hypnotic slide guitar boogie riff as sousaphone player Rafgee played a fat, bubbly, almost subsonic groove and drummer Baptiste Brondy – who played with Danaë in French-Brazilian band Rivière Noire – thumped along with a punchy New Orleans second-line beat. Then without missing a step, the band segued into a brisk, roughhewn, major-key blues that evoked Mississippi hill country as much as it did Chicago wildman Hound Dog Taylor. Except that Danaë was singing in the creole dialect of his native Guadeloupe.

The band take their name from Louis Delgrès, the late 18th century Guadeloupian freedom fighter who is remembered as a Nathan Hale-like martyr who chose execution rather than concede to the French invaders. Since a lot of Guadeloupian refugees ended up in New Orleans, the group’s propulsive blend of growling American blues, Crescent City rhythms and circling island folk themes makes more sense than might be apparent.

Danaë dedicated the next tune, Mo Jodi – meaning “die today” – to both the band’s namesake and “everyone fighting for freedom around the world.” Brondy’s heavy, rat-a-tat tom-tons anchored the sousaphone’s catchy riffs as Rafgee slunk upward, Danaë’s chords and jangly fragments punching through the mix.

They bought it down a little after that with a simmering, syncopated minor-key sway, Danaë singing with more of a drawl, just guitar and drums for the first verse. Name another band where the sousaphone plays the big hooks so much of the time!

Their next tune, Mr. President had a defiantly emphatic drive and a refrain of “Leave, leave, leave,” that went unnoticed with the English speakers in the crowd but resonated deliciously with those who knew a little French. Maybe sensing the lack of reaction, Danaë switched to English for a driving, rhythmic breakup anthem, then took a detour into a spare, elegaic lament for a fallen hero that eventually picked up steam with a terse slide guitar solo.

They followed with a slow, quasi trip-hop ballad, winding up with a moody trumpet solo from Rafgee, then a romping R.L. Burnside-style number: “We are no different,” Danaë reminded a diverse crowd. Their creole Led Zep medley got everybody howling, but he got serious immediately afterward with an insistent antiwar anthem, the most rock-oriented of the band’s originals. 

What was most impressive about this set was that Delgres had already played a two-hour set earlier in the day – outdoors in downtown Brooklyn, as the scorching sun reached its midday peak. Basking in the Lincoln Center air conditioning, they were still sweating hard by the show’s third song. Delgres’ tour continues with shows at the Winnipeg Folk Festival on July 7 and 8, then they’re off to Europe. And the next free show at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is  July 19 at 7:30 PM with Afro-Colombian legends Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto. Get there early if you’re going.

Book of J Reinvent Classic Spiritual Sounds With a New Album and a July Barbes Residency

Book of J are Sway Machinery guitarist/bandleader Jeremiah Lockwood and singer Jewlia Eisenberg of Charming Hostess. Each have brought an impassioned, vocally-driven approach to their own projects, equally informed by classic Jewish and African-American melodies and spiritual traditions. Together they reinvent those influences, from haunting, medieval Jewish piyutim love laments, to oldtime country blues and gospel. Their debut album is streaming at youtube. They have a weekly Saturday 6 PM residency at Barbes this July, a venue where the two have collaborated memorably in the past.

The new album opens with a steady version of the spiritual 12 Gates to the City, Eisenberg taking the lead, Lockwood’s harmonies shadowing her as he drives the song with his shivery acoustic slide blues work. Likewise, Lockwood’s nimbly tumbling phrases propel the gorgeous Agadelkha, Eisenberg’s raw vocals out front, up to an enigmatic chordal guitar solo. The verse sounds like an acoustic Balkan predecessor of the Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit: was Grace Slick into that stuff?

Lockwood switches to Telecaster for a boogie-flavored take of the country gospel tune Do Lord, Remember Me which they transform into an oldtime union anthem after a spiky Lockwood guitar solo. The duo exchange impassioned, conspiratorial vocals over Lockwood’s eerily tremoloing guitar in the Yiddish dirge Khavele; their hauntingly fluttering, sotto-voce, French/English take of Leonard Cohen’s The Partisan is much the same.

They go back to classic African-American gospel for Freedom Plow, adding unsettled indie rock chords underneath. Their call-and-response in the country blues-flavored Tell God is much more rustic. Then they do Sweet Inspiration as proto Ike & Tina Turner, with some sweet, Indian summer blues guitar riffage.

Eisenberg sings an unvarnished take of the lament Seven Sons Had Hannah over Lockwood’s spare, hypnotically Malian-influenced guitar. Tzir is the shortest, most whispery and most starkly gorgeous, bittersweet song on the album. The duo follow with Kum Mayn Kind, a distantly blues-inflected European lullaby

They do a final spiritual, My Sun Will Never Go Down as a turn-of-the-[past]-century Pete’s Candy Store number, with some starkly incisive picking from Lockwood, and close with a hushedly fervent, brooding interpretation of Fiery Love, an edgy Yiddish theme.

Lockwood always invites a whole slew of killer talent to his Barbes residencies; the July 14 edition with his sometime collaborator, Big Lazy noir guitar genius Steve Ulrich, should be particularly intense.

The Sideshow Tragedy Amp Up Their Uneasy, Ferocious Punk Blues

Austin duo the Sideshow Tragedy’s 2015 album Capital was “a sinister, brilliantly metaphorical portrait of a nation gone off the rails in an orgy of greed and mass desperation,” as this blog described it at the time. Since the fateful 2016 election, it’s only taken on more relevance. The band’s new album, The View From Nowhere is streaming at Bandcamp. The music is heavier and more corrosively enveloping than the band’s earlier material, while the lyrics are surprisingly more spare, hip hop-influenced and surprisingly hopeful. The duo of guitarist Nathan Singleton and drummer Jeremy Harrell are making a relatively rare New York stop tomorrow night, June 21 at 10:30 PM at the Manderley Bar at the McKittrick Hotel, 530 W 27th St. between 10th/11th Aves on the south side of the street. Watch for the little red light; admission is free.

As the duo build to an impressibly hefty Some Girls-era Rolling Stones groove in the album’s opening cut, Lost Time, Singleton sets the tone for what’s to come:

What does it mean to forgive
What would it cost live under the weight of memory
My body gives out underneath

The songs, and much of the rest of the album, strongly bring to mind Marcellus Hall’s great bassless 90s New York trio White Hassle.

Piston Blues is a showcase for Singleton’s snarling, serpentine blues hammer-ons. Trust has a funky lowrider slink that the duo build to a catchy, hypnotic riff-rock groove, with welcome, defiant optimism. Nobody, a mashup of 70s Stones and the Gun Club, has a cynical “I’ll get mine come hell or high water” message. “There’s nobody out on the road tonight, just me and my  memories looking for a fight,” Singleton intones bitterly. 

The band keep the hard funk going in Time to Taste, with a haggard, screechy sax break. Singleton’s enigmatically shifting open chords fuel Afraid to Fall: “I’m painting the future as a masterpiece, screaming my lungs out in the belly of the beast,” he rails. It’s the most darkly funny and lyrically complex tune here.

The epically shuffling Long Time Coming has a guarded optimism, Harrell’s gunshot accents under Singleton’s fire-and-brimstone imagery. For Your Love – an original, not the Yardbirds hit – is the most ornate track here, Singleton’s lingering guitar multitracks over Harrell’s steady stomp. The album winds up with pensive, mutedly Dylanesque title track: “Can’t look anybody in the eye, can’t suspend my disbelief,” Singleton muses. It’s a change of pace for the band: while the album doesn’t have the previous album’s visceral, apocalyptic impact, the guitar here is no less assaultively tasty. 

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.

A Passionate Lincoln Center Debut By Charismatic Detroit Singer Thornetta Davis

What better place than Lincoln Center for Thornetta Davis, “Detroit’s Queen of the Blues,” to unveil her new horn section? “I just learned about her a year ago and had the great fortune to see her at B.B. King’s,” explained Lincoln Center’s Viviana Benitez, who programmed Davis’ impassioned, sweaty, unselfconsciously workmanlike performance this past evening.

Since the 80s, Davis’ career has taken a slow, steady upward tangent, to the point where she’s just as popular in Europe as she is in her hometown. Not bad for a woman who, as a single mom back in the 80s, considered herself lucky to be pulling in a couple hundred bucks a week singing with Motor City group the Chisel Brothers. Fronting her eight-piece band –  guitar, five-string bass, keys, drums, congas, tenor sax and trumpet – she put a fresh spin on a popular old sound. 

In just the first two minutes of the opening instrumental, the group swung their way from gritty Fender Rhodes funk into sunnier, trumpet-spiced soul ballad territory. Regal in a sparkly all-black outfit and a serious mane of an afro, brandishing a witchy peacock-feather fan, Davis took the stage with a cool but insistent take of I Gotta Sing the Blues, a pulsing vintage Tina Turner-style anthem. Guitarist Carlton Washington took a jaggedly tasty, clanking early-70s style solo before Davis drove the music upward, cutting loose with her vibrato.

Washington’s lingering chords against the steady thump of the congas lent some noir latin flavor to A Pretty Good Love, Davis reaching to the bottom of her formidable low register at the end. The band hit a no-nonsense vintage Chicago-style blues shuffle in That Don’t Appease Me, Washington’s purist riffage again matching Davis’ defiant delivery. Then his spare Smokey Robinson-like lines mingled with keyboardist Phil Hale’s spare gospel lines in the gorgeous vintage 60s-style soul ballad Am I Just a Shadow.

Hale’s scampering Rhodes added extra funk to When I’m Kissing My Love. “I wrote this song because this brother kept calling me, messing with my head,” Davis explained as the band launched into the slow, simmering blues ballad I’d Rather Be Alone. “That key in your hand don’t unlock my door,” she cautioned, building to a slow, impassioned peak along with the horns, Hale’s slinky, purist electric piano. and Washington’s shivery vibrato-toned lines. She brought it down at the end with a sly series of disses for a guy who’s too full of himself for his own good.

They got funky again with I Need a Whole Lotta Lovin to Satisfy Me – by this point, the dancefloor in front of the stage had filled up, kids on the Broadway side of the room, oldsters closer to the doors on Columbus Avenue. The the group ripped through the blues classic Further On Up the Road, Washington bobbing and weaving between the horns. 

Washington saved the night’s most intense pyrotechnics for a long solo in the lush ballad after that. “We need prayer every time we can get it in, especially these days,” Davis mused, introducing an elegantly fervent version of the B.B. King classic Please Send Me Someone to Love. She shimmied and took a couple of leaps to kick off the swinging shuffle Get Up and Dance Away Your Blues. After a Memphis-tinged take of Honest Woman, the optimistically swaying title track from her latest album, she closed with I Believe, a simmering, slide guitar-driven roadhouse blues.

In an era where the blues has become a legacy style, like bluegrass and roots reggae – and a lot of bands play it like it’s an artifact in a museum – Davis and her band are a blast of fresh air.

One particularly enticing, upcoming free concert at Lincoln Center’s atrium space just north of 62nd St. on Broadway is on May 31 at 7:30 PM with charismatic crooner Zeshan B “doing Memphis blues with a little Pakistani feel,” as Benitez put it. Get there early if you’re going.

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.