New York Music Daily

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Category: folk music

A Rare, Harrowing Gem by One of New York’s Most Riveting Voices

Erica Smith was still in her twenties when she recorded a handful of quietly shattering acoustic songs in 2003. They were meant as demos. Her electric band would later air those songs out, memorably, at venues across New York and beyond, but recordings of them haven’t seen the light of day until recently. Her ep, which she calls The Dead and the Saints, is up at Bandcamp as a free download. It’s an important piece of New York music history and you should own it.

Smith’s first album was a stark, saturnine acoustic folk record. She pulled a band together for her second record, Friend or Foe, a showcase for her ability to reach from simmering oldschool soul, to stark traditional songs and impassioned ballads.

That versatility, and her similarly eclectic songwriting, came to the forefront with her third release, Snowblind, a harrowing chronicle of tragedy, loss and eventual resurgence. More recently she’s flexed her chops as a jazz stylist.

But this riveting little record reminds how strong she already was, two decades ago. “It starts with the sound of the siren,” she sings in Jesus’s Clown, a crucifixion parable and a co-write with the late Sean Dolan that ranks with that famous Phil Ochs song. “There were more than twelve of us around, and those who stayed got their names written down,” she reminds: “I was there and I know what I saw.”

See You in the Morning might be Smith’s most haunting song, a sober waltz with childhood memories of her mother, whom she lost as a gradeschooler. The vocals will rip your face off.

As they will on All the King’s Horses, another Dolan co-write. This version is a stripped-down version of the metaphorically-loaded pilgrim’s narrative which pretty much capsulizes the ugly history of the world in a few cinematic minutes. It’s been called one of the best songs ever written:

By now He would have died six more times, been resurrected and forgiven
We watched in hiding as they rolled away the stone
Praised heaven and all that’s forbidden

It’s also missing the eventual crushing final verse. The final cut on the ep is a rare waltz version of Old Pine Box, a haunted, imagistic tale that the band played as a brisk psychedelic janglerock tune.

Smith is still active as a performer; the last time this blog was in the house was a similarly magical acoustic show upstairs at 2A in the spring of 2018.


Best Ever Playlist on this Page?

It’s been a month since there’s been a playlist of singles on this page, and this might be the best of them all. As usual, click on artist names for their webpages, click on titles for audio, video or just a good visual joke (if there’s no title link, just click on the artist).

Here’s something beautiful and brilliant to inspire you: a 12-year-old British girl absolutely destroys the WEF’s 15-minute city prison concept. Scroll down to the last video, via Tessa Lena‘s must-read investigative and philosophical Substack.

Tessa is also a brilliant and haunting singer, and she’s finally released a new single, Hovin Mernem, an old Armenian folk song on a familiar theme of missing someone who’s gone over the mountains, maybe never to be seen again (scroll down to the bottom of the page).

It’s amazing how much good music you find in random moments on the web. This nameless Australian choir turns in a heartwarming version of the Staples Singers’ Just Another Soldier in the Army of Love.

Strong early contender for best song of 2023: Balcony, by moody, jangly, coldly new wave-flavored Brooklyn band Nostranders.

You have to watch Pussy Riot‘s new single Putin’s Ashes closely to appreciate this stately chorale. Rough translation: “Sharpening a knife for Putin, I will not forgive your evil.”

The Oracle Sisters’ Tramp Like You is surreal Lynchian glam-soul; if Bowie did a song for Blue Velvet, it might have sounded like this

Ladytron‘s new single City of Angels features chill robotic vocals over a surprisingly warmly orchestrated backdrop

A clear voice searching for more clarity in a hypnotic, slide guitar-driven Americana anthem: Megan Brickwood‘s Trinity River Blues

Novelist and mighty memestress Amy Sukwan shares California license plate 3JOH22A (scroll midway down the page)

This video by Japanese folk-punk duo Ki & Ki has been around awhile, but it’s a good segue, an otherworldly and rather stern march played in perfect sync on twin shamisen lutes.

Now, because music doesn’t exist in a vacuum, things are going to get dark, but everything ends on a positive note. First, Texas Lindsay shows how Japanese excess mortality correlates to Covid injection uptake, over a shamanic taiko drum rhythm. 1 minute 15 second video via freedom fighter Super Sally in the Philippines (scroll down to middle of the page)

Here’s an eerily prophetic hip-hop joint from 2012: Dr. Creep‘s Pandemic (via Lioness of Judah‘s excellent daily news feed)

Begin life in a lab in the first war of vaccines
Million die in the first week in the pandemic dreams…
Flu-shot propaganda for all population and troops
Avoid the plague; it might have seeped into the room….
This isn’t past tense or the plague of Athens
Couldn’t be eradicated like smallpox in action
Avian influenza in the jetstream is how it happens
2020 combined with coronavirus, bodies stacking

Scott Ralley gives us Freedom, his latest reggae-rap protest song via novelist Margaret Anna Alice‘s brilliant piece on fence-riders

Speaking of riding the fence and jersey-switching, cartoonist Anne Gibbons asks “How do we get you back onboard,” via Dr. Meryl Nass (who is doing a hilariously acerbic liveblog of this week’s ACIP meetings)

Let’s end this on a redemptive and unselfconsciously funny note with Naomi Wolf’s venomous response to the recent New York Times attempt to slowly backwalk their longtime and ludicrous Covid fearmongering. Anyone who was banned from a bar or any other venue, or lost their job because of lockdown restrictions will relish this. Start this video excerpt from her latest book The Bodies of Others at 3:49:

“Closing restaurants and bars was strategic. The goal of these oligarchs who wanted to make war on humanity especially want to make war on community. People can communicate and share and compare their truths and experiences when they’re in a bar or a restaurant….and learn for themselves that there was a life to be had outside of lockdowns and outside of Covid hysteria, which turned out to be predicated on pretty much no solid evidence, as this book demonstrates. The New York Times killed people, they were driven to lives of despair…they crushed the dreams of a hundred thousand restaurant owners…They killed cultures, they killed neighborhoods, and all on the basis of a lie.”

Ubiquitously Entertaining New York Americana Tunesmith Returns to an Old Haunt in SoHo

It was sometime after midnight in the wee hours of January 8, 2003 at the C-Note, and the East Village club was packed. Earlier in the night, the crowd had been treated to one of the best Americana triplebills of the year. Erica Smith channeled her inner road warrior and shook off the laryngitis which had threatened to derail her solo set, a lustrous and nuanced mix of Appalachian folk tunes and a reinvented sea chantey. She closed with her best song of the night, the soaring retro 60s soul ballad Love You All the Way.

Kings County Queens followed with a similarly luminous, low-key hour onstage, but their performance had a seething undercurrent that peaked quietly when bandleaders Chris Bowers and Daria Klotz joined voices with a simmering calm throughout the vengeful anthem How Do You Sleep. Headliners American Ambulance broke in a new rhythm section with a set of acerbically political, twangy highway rock and roaring, Stonesy songs. They dedicated their lone cover, a snidely countrified version of the Clash’s Death or Glory, to the club’s talent buyer: he’d recently reemerged after going off on a bender when Joe Strummer died.

Among the crowd at the bar after the show were a future daily New York music blog proprietor and a pretty blonde from the neighborhood. They’d been circling each other for a few weeks, and had fallen into what could charitably be called a cycle of missed signals, or, less charitably, a comedy of errors fueled by massive amounts of intoxicants. In 2003, the New York music scene was quite the party, at least if you were young and had money, or knew someone who was part of it.

The man behind the bar that night was Jack Grace, and the top guy in the city’s thriving and volatile Americana scene had brought his acoustic guitar with him. In between pouring drinks, he serenaded the customers with his big baritone voice and a long succession of Neil Young songs. Entranced, the blonde turned to the future blog owner and told him to keep his voice down. Grace ran interference: “Who are you, the human volume control?”

Two decades later, Grace is still going strong and is no less of a wiseass. In those days, not only did he have the voice, and the often ridiculously funny songs, but he was also fast becoming a hell of a lead guitarist. He’s an even better one now – and he’s playing Feb 22 at around midnight at a familiar haunt, the Ear Inn, which has been around a couple of centuries longer than he has.

It’s been awhile since this blog was in the house at one of his shows. But looking back on his heyday in this city, Grace fine-tuned his signature mix of surreal outlaw country, brooding Tom Waits-influenced narratives and increasingly frequent detours into high-energy Tex-Mex sounds through a lot of hard work. He was as likely to play an off-night just to keep his band in shape, or work up new tunes or jokes for the stage show, as he was to take the odd bartender shift for some extra cash.

On Thanksgiving Eve, 2002, the future blog owner and the blonde went up to Rodeo Bar to watch Grace work organist Nate Smith into the mix, with Dan Hovey joining the band on lapsteel and lead guitar. On what was the coldest night of that winter so far, the band segued from Grace’s vaudevillian, Waits-ish Lonesome Entertainer into a full-length, pseudo-countrified cover of the BeeGees Staying Alive. Later in the set, they moved from South Dakota, an oddly prophetic Black Hills shout-out, into Whole Lotta Love and then a haphazard final verse of his stoner country hit Worm Farm.

Then a month and a day later, the two returned for another Grace gig at the Rodeo. By now, Smith had figured out how to fuse his soul organ into the material, more Amy Schneider than Brent Mydland. This time the place was packed, the two had to wait until the second set before they could find seats at the bar, and the band were a lot tighter. The highlight of the night was I’m Not Here, one of Grace’s best songs of the era, a cynically dissociative rugged individualist’s lament

The party continued after the show many blocks further south at the Magician on the Lower East Side. This time, it was the future blog owner’s turn to take a stab at running interference with a degree of diplomacy. To what extent that succeeded we’ll never know. Sometimes things are best left in a haze of smoky memories.

Five Times August’s Silent War: The Best Rock Album of 2022

Akin to his predecessors Woody Guthrie and Phil Ochs, songwriter Five Times August burst on the scene in 2020 playing solo acoustic at freedom rallies. Over the last couple of years, his hilarious videos have gone viral, to the point where he’s probably the most popular protest singer in the US. Another reason for that popularity is that he’s a hell of a songwriter. The man known to some as Brad Skistimas has finally assembled those songs on a full-length album, Silent War, streaming at Bandcamp. This lyrically scorching, often seethingly funny record isn’t just the best album of 2022: Five Times August brings receipts. Time may judge this a classic, as important and vivid a portrait of an era as the Dead Kennedys’ Frankenchrist.

The songs are straightforward and uncluttered to an extreme, mostly just vocals and acoustic guitar. The cheery bounce of the opening track, God Help Us All is a stark contrast to the torrent of cynical rhymes for a time of reality inversion and mass psychosis:

Citizen fools and brand new rules make everyone a hero now
Keep your distance, no resistance, only do what you’re allowed…
See no evil, bow to the needle, didn’t we turn out great?
Sick is the new health, poor is the new wealth, truth is whatever they say…
Divide and conquer, weak not stronger, everybody know your place
Do it now, it won’t hurt, dig into your own dirt, virtue found its grave

Skistimas has remade his viral hit Jesus… What Happened to Us? with a lot more energy as well. It’s less of a lament than searing cautionary tale:

Mark, Jack, Bill, Joe, they’ll teach you what you need to know,
They’ll give you your permissions and tell you where to go…
Shut your mouth, get in line, just behave or pay the fine
They’re pulling on your backbone and taking out your spine

The album’s funniest video hit is Outtayerdaminde, a rapidfire litany of Libs of Tiktok narcissism and buffoonery. Then Skistimas reaches for a scampering acoustic Dylan vibe in I Will Not Be Leaving Quietly, a defiant clapalong anthem.

This blog picked the solemnly waltzing title track as the best song of 2021, and it’s aged tragically well:

They’ve covered your mouth and tied back your hands
They did it to all of the kids
And nobody knows all the damage it’s done
And won’t ask until the master permits…
Take back your freedom and fight for your life, stand up before it’s all gone

Track six, simply titled Joe, is a venomous front-porch folk variant on a folk song that Jimi Hendrix immortalized, referencing the pullout from Afghanistan, the 2020 election and the perils inherent in having a guy with late-stage Alzheimer’s in the Oval Office. The ending is too good to give away.

Sad Little Man, probably the only bestselling single to ever appear on this page, is a creepy, tiptoeing portrait of the career bureaucrat who conspired with Jeremy Farrar and the British MI5 gestapo to launch the plandemic in 2020.

Skistimas hits a Subterranean Homesick drive in Anti-Fascist Blues, a full-band go-go blues broadside targeting cancel culture: “Make yourself a slave until you think that you’re free, dig yourself a grave for the American dream.”

This Just In is a defiant shout-out the Canadian truckers – and the funniest, most spot-on portrait of Justin Trudeau ever written. Likewise, Fight For You is tender but resolute: love during the most hideous holocaust in world history.

The most towering, haunting anthem here is Gates Behind the Bars. It could be the best song of 2022:

The geek’s in control, he’s changed his disguise
His chemical world will be your demise
He’s sick and he’s cruel and acts like he’s God
Speaks on the stage while zombies applaud
The creep’s not alone, he plots with his friends,
The forum they have is a circle of sin
There’s snakes all around who traffic and kill
They’ll dope up the world with needles and pills

Skistimas switches to piano for Lions:

Someday when the truth has been revealed
After all the effort to be healed
You will see the wounded everywhere you go
So wake up with the lions, don’t let yourself stay asleep

He winds up the album with a couple of bonus covers, a stripped-down version of the Tom Petty hit I Won’t Back Down and a Guthrie-esque Star Spangled Banner.

Thanks to the world’s #1 “misinformation spreader,” Steve Kirsch for the heads-up about this one.

The Ragas Live Festival 2022, Part 2: Hits and Misses

This year’s return of the 24-hour-plus Ragas Live festival of Indian music and related sounds was so epic that it requires two parts to reasonably digest. The frequently rapturous first half was reviewed here yesterday. The second part was also often transcendent, with some issues.

Let’s tackle those and then get to the good stuff. You’re never going to see fusion jazz on this page: with rare exceptions, good jazz is basically acoustic music. So if you enjoyed the tropical midnight act and the interminable Moroccan fusion interlude yesterday afternoon, glad you had a good time.

It would have been fun to catch sitarist Abhik Mukherjee‘s set to begin the second half of the marathon. Who knew that a trip for coffee a little earlier in the morning would also have turned into a marathon, a much less enjoyable one.

Back at Pioneer Works, bansuri flutist Jay Gandhi took an absolutely harrowing detour, running variations on a haunting, wary chromatic theme with Ehren Hanson on tabla for what seemed the better part of an hour. Beyond Gandhi’s breathtakingly liquid, perfectly modulated sine-wave attack, the somber mood was impossible to turn away from. These are troubled times: nobody has channeled that with such subtle power in recent months as these two. Which made their clever and allusive permutations on a bouncy nursery-rhyme-like riff afterward such a stark contrast. And yet, the darkness lingered, if at a distance.

Trumpeter Amir ElSaffar, whose most recent specialty has become oceanic Middle Eastern big band jazz, followed with about an hour of brooding electroacoustic sounds. Starting off on a labyrinthine rack of analog synthesizers, he rose from enveloping ambience to an achingly gorgeous, regal solo trumpet fanfare in a moody Iraqi maqam. Next, he looped an austere, baroquely churchy organ processional, then employed it as a backdrop for a constellation of santoor riffs which echoed Gandhi’s pervasive angst. He wound up the set on vocals with a similarly cautionary clarion call, more or less.

Another santoorist, Vinay Desai kept the angst at redline with a saturnine tribute to the late, great Shivkumar Sharma, who left us this past spring. We don’t know for certain if the lethal Covid injection took him out. With Vivek Pandya on tabla, the two musicians developed an absolutely gorgeous, elegaic, allusively chromatic theme and variations. Remaining mostly in the midrange, Desai rose for the great beyond with a somber glimmer before bringing it down to a dirge and the tabla entered. As the hour went on, Desai’s ripples off the walls of the space echoed into a galactic drift. Eventually, the duo took the theme skipping into the stars, a sober but energetic farewell to a pioneer.

ElSaffar returned for a second turn on santoor, joining percussionist Zafer Tawil and violinist Sami Abu Shumays behind impassioned veteran Iraqi crooner Hamid Al Saadi. After the sober, stately initial march, the maqam singer would begin the rest of the set’s expansive numbers with darkly dynamic, rubato intros, one leading to a surprisingly subtle call-and-response with ElSaffar. A little later, the group made their way into a swaying, ebullient major-key tune with a starkly contrasting santoor-and- violin break. They closed with undulating, biting chromatic theme with even more lusciously intertwined santoor and violin and a machinegunning coda.

Violinist Arun Ramamurthy gets credit for the festival’s most pyrotechnic performance, a role he’s become accustomed to. This time out he had his Indian jazz trio with bassist Damon Banks and Sameer Gupta on drums. This was the symphonic Ramamurthy: in the boomy space, with the natural reverb bouncing off the walls, he was a violin army. Banks would typically shadow him, Gupta inventively doing a nimble churning groove with tabla voicings on his kit, as the bandleader made his way through a rising and falling epic in tribute to his ancestors, to moments of icy ambience as well as frequent excursions through the bluesy raga riffs that he likes to mine in this context. Nobody knows how to draw an audience in with foreshadowing and judiciously spectacular slides and stabs better than Ramamurthy.

After that it was dance time. All-female Moroccan trance-dance ensemble group Bnat el Houariyat, featuring New York’s Esraa Warda took over the stage and then stomped and twirled and spoke power to male hegemony.

In her New York debut, singer/dancer and mystic Parvathy Baul brought ancient archetypes to life in a fervent but utterly unselfconsciously spiritual set of Bengali ritual songs. Showing off a soulfully soaring, meticulously melismatic, carnatically-infused voice which took on a grittier edge as her set went on, she sang innumerable mythical metaphors and cheerily translated them for the English-only crowd. Moving from ecstasy to tenderness and then an acerbic insistence, she cut loose and reminded that crowd that the truth is like a lion. All you have to do is set it free. Or words to that effect. Let’s hope there’s a Ragas Live festival in 2023.

Halloween Month Singles, Vol. 1

Today is a big dump of really creepy stuff, but plenty of ridiculously funny video and some calmer, organically-rooted sounds to balance things out. Some songs, some visuals, a macabre video skit and a few short reads, a long album’s worth of entertainment. Click on artist or author names for their webpages, click on titles for audio, video or a quick read.

Soon-to-be-expat New Yorker Daisy Moses offers her usual spot-on, hilarious take on Lizzo using her expert lips and tongue on James Madison’s 200-year-old crystal flute. Too funny: 2-minute read with videos

Investigative journalist Joel Smalley discovers that he’s somehow received not just one but two Covid shots! The UK National Health system says he did but can’t explain how. Too funny. 28-second silent video

The Halloween video of the week comes to us via Mark Crispin Miller‘s weekly chronicle of the casualties of Operation Herod. Is it deadly to be in close contact with Charles In Charge? Scroll down to the third video,

Here’s ex-BlackRock hedge fund analyst Ed Dowd – the first to blow the whistle on the lethal Covid injection’s effect on all-cause mortality – on the Jerm Warfare podcast, via Sage Hana. This is one of her savagely spot-on videos, with a surprise ending

Here’s another funny one: Prof. Freedom’s Covid Religion video – a free download at Unbekoming (scroll down about 3/4 down the page). Plus a bonus chapter from Dr. Mark McDonald’s future classic 2020 broadside, United States of Fear.

Investigative journalist Etana Hecht suggests to a script-reading CDC contractor phone operator that she might want to turn whistleblower. The good stuff, with some VERY pregnant pauses, starts at about 6:50 in the audio of the phone call: scroll to the bottom of the page.

World Economic Forum infiltraitor Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand gets caught snorting blow on camera, thanks to Wittgenstein on Twitter via 2SG on Substack

Turfseer, the king of artsy protest anthems, has a not-so-secret second life as film composer and dramatist. Here’s his cruelly funny, cynical Twilight Zone parody, – Nightmare at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Will the rebel army make it to the underground bunkers where President Fauci is hiding out with Zuck and Gates? And whose side is that mysterious BLM protestor really on? There’s a surprise ending to this 21-minute video with a good original score

Reliably wide-ranging, inspiring freedom fighter, author and podcaster Bretigne Shaffer gives us a free pdf of her metaphorically savage short story Elixir of Fear.

Need a break from this relentless darkness? Crank up pianist/singer Maria Mendes‘ lavish, symphonic new big band jazz single Hermeto’s Fado for Maria, by the iconic Brazilian composer Hermeto Pascoal. That goofy synth break midway through will crack you up

The MammalsIf You Could Hear Me Now is a front-porch protest song for our time. “The money’s in charge of the black coal barge and there’s no more fish to be fishing.” Thanks to investigative journalism legend Celia Farber for passing this along.

Jude Roberts sings his elegantly snarling ragtime-flavored protest song Fall On Your Sword, Dr. Fauci, “the world’s biggest industry whore” who puts his greedy fingers into every fucking pie.

Americana songstress Monica Taylor delivers Rescues, a down-home red dirt Oklahoma shuffle with banjo and dobro,

Let’s wind this up with a shot of raw adrenaline: Lara Hope & the Ark-Tones ripping their way through their ghoulabilly hit I Drink to Your Health, with a searing Eddie Rion guitar solo

A Triumphant Return For Gorgeous Accordion and Accordion-Adjacent Sounds at Bryant Park

Last night at Bryant Park marked the very welcome return of the annual accordion festival there. At its pre-2020 peak, the festival ran weekly over a month or more beginning in late summer. This year’s installment mirrored the wild eclecticism and thrills that organizer Ariana Hellerman programmed there until the fateful events of 2020.

“Ultimately this is about love,” she told the crowd before the show, acknowledging New York’s debt to the immigrant communities who share her appreciation for portable keyed reed instruments. She’d begun programming the festival ten years ago after returning from Colombia, where she’d fallen in love with vallenato. “I’d never seen the accordion as revered as it was in Colombia. People would play air accordion in the streets.”

Heart of Afghanistan opened this year’s mainstage concert with a brooding anthem, frontman/harmonium player Ahmad Fanoos singing with a simmering intensity over his pianist son Elham Fanoos’ glittering, neoromantic cascades. It came across as part Bollywood, part Egyptian classical, mirroring the ensemble’s home country’s role as a focal point over centuries of cultural cross-pollination.

They followed with an elegantly syncopated, crescendoing take of a traditional Afghani New Years theme, Mehran Fanoos’ violin soaring distantly over Hamid Habibzada’s tablā. A dramatic, heroic minor-key theme fueled by lickety-split, meticulously ornamented piano and plaintively interwoven violin was next, the bandleader finally rising to an impassioned, melismatic peak.

The central Asian passion continued with an insistently syncopated, chromatically charged number, then the group resurrected the pre-Taliban Afghani national anthem as quasi art-rock with a shivery violin solo: it sure blows away the old drinking song that Francis Scott Key appropriated.

They took a detour into a jaunty ghazal, bouncing along with call-and-response and microtonal violin cadenzas, then a return to pouncing Middle Eastern-inflected modal fire, peaking out with an angst-fueled anthem. Music this gorgeous deserves to be vastly better known.

The Ukrainian Village Voices were next on the bill with an abbreviated set. From their home in the East Village, the rotating cast of this accordion-driven chorale have been New York’s nexus for traditional sounds from that imperiled part of the world.

The multi-generational, dual-gendered ensemble opened with a goofy, rousing, simple tune about harvesting buckwheat and making pancakes which the babushkas they’d met on their 2018 Ukrainian tour had asked them to sing over and over, as one of the group explained to the crowd.

A drinking song with the somber theme of “drink up because we may be gone tomorrow” was next – it came across as more of a work song. Make of that what you will.

They picked up the pace with a bristling, chromatic traditional warrior’s circle dance with violin from one of the chorus and closed with a pulsing party anthem sung from the point of view of a girl who doesn’t want to go home.

Balaklava Blues – a spinoff of fiery Canadian Balkan band the Lemon Bucket Orkestra – were up next. One of the trio’s two violinists – each of whom doubled on drums – built a long, suspenseful, shivery solo over an ominous low drone before accordionist Marichka Marczyk took to the mic with a plaintive, increasingly vocal, in Ukrainian. Her violinist husband Mark’s mask – mouth and nose open, most of the rest of his face obscured – spoke as much truth to power as any of the music on the bill.

Finally, at the end, Marichka switched to English: “Don’t tell me what to do” was the mantra. They followed by making glitchy trip-hop out of a rousing, defiantly stomping, whooping folk tune, like a slightly less thunderous Dakhabrakha. Marichka switched to piano and sang “Give me money or something” in a venomous turbo-folk-trip-hop anthem, with a searing violin solo from her husband.

As she told the crowd, the band’s raison d’etre is “To fight for freedom not only in Ukraine but for democracy all around the world.” Meanwhile, her brother is somewhere on the Ukrainian frontline, fighting off Russian retaliation to the NATO-provoked conflict. No wonder the piercing, angst-fueled art-rock lament that followed was about going home – and the prospect of never being able to. Remaining at the piano, Marichka continued with a slowly crescendoing, eerily chromatic tableau. They built a singalong with the crowd on a similarly macabre-tinged coda, the band’s second violinist echoing Marichka’s shivery, harrowing, imploring voice.

Since this happened to be Mexican independence day, a Selena cover band headlined. This pickup group of A-list New York musicians hail from the worlds of cumbia, Turkish music, klezmer and Americana, among other styles. Sure, it was a tr ip to see Michael Winograd – one of this era’s great klezmer clarinetists – step outside the box and take a turn on go-go sax. Unlike Selena, frontwoman Jenny Luna is a native Spanish speaker, and quickly revealed herself as an infinitely better and more seductive singer. The group were tighter than their debut before the lockdown at a crowded Brooklyn bar, but ultimately, the material wasn’t up to the level of the cast onstage. And that’s when it was time to call it a night.

The next concert at Bryant Park is tonight, Sept 17 at 7 PM with the the American Symphony Orchestra playing music by William Grant Still, Louise Talma and Mahler.

A Harrowing Solo Comeback Album and a Rare New York Show by Cult Icon Nina Nastasia

For about a decade beginning in the late 90s, songwriter Nina Nastasia earned a devoted following for her frequently haunting, painterly work. It’s hard to think of another artist who so perceptively captured the details in the darkness beneath the bustle in gritty New York neighborhoods which became artistic meccas before they were crushed in a blitzkrieg of gentrification.

The city’s decline mirrored Nastasia’s own. By 2010, her performing career had pretty much stalled. As Nastasia tells it, she and her longtime partner Kennan Gudjonsson sequestered themselves a tiny Chelsea apartment, caught up in a cycle of abuse and codependence. The day after Nastasia finally moved out, in January 2020, Gudjonsson killed himself.

In the first few months of the lockdown, Nastasia was able to process what by all accounts must have been inconceivable pain, and the result is a harrowing solo vinyl record, Riderless Horse, streaming at Bandcamp. She’s playing what could be her first Williamsburg show in at least fifteen years at Union Pool on August 20 at 7 PM for $20

It’s been a dozen years since Nastasia released an album, but she’s emerged a stronger singer than ever. Meanwhile, her songwriting has taken a detour into Americana. With her usual black humor, she opens with the sound of a cork popping: this will not exactly be a party, but it’s impossible to turn away from.

The album’s first song is Just Stay in Bed, a spare Tex-Mex flavored tune in 6/8. Just when it sounds like it’s going to turn into a fond love song, Nastasia’s voice grows menacing. Clearly this was a dysfunctional relationship on both sides.

Her vocals rise to fiery accusatory levels over steady strumming in the second track, You Were So Mad, a stoic breakup ballad: “You set a blaze inside our house, you set a blaze and smoked us out.” This Is Love is a subdued heartland rock anthem, a chronicle of “taking turns to follow and lead into the dissonance.”

The narrative grows uglier over Nastasia’s enigmatic fingerpicking in Nature, a plainspoken portrait of violence, and how easy it is to become habituated to it. This dynamic will resonate intensely through the rest of the record.

Nastasia switches to waltz time for Lazy Road, although even in this bucolic calm, death is lurking nearby. She revisits that atmosphere a little later with the bluegrass-tinged Blind As Batsies.

“I keep you alive as best as I can do,” Nastasia sings imploringly, but ultimately “to choose life over illness and leave,” in another waltz, Ask Me. She switches back to a muted Americana sway in the ironically titled The Two of Us, which wouldn’t be out of place on an Amy Rigby record from the 90s:

The simmering rage returns in Go Away: “There’s only one way to for me to give you peace, for me to leave: bury me,” Nastasia taunts. She follows with The Roundabout, an anguished request to bury the conflict under a blanket of denial.

The next track, Trust is the closest thing here to the stark sparkle that permeates Nastasia’s iconic early work. She sings to a ghost, in waltz time again, in Afterwards: “Love is tiresome when you’re older…it makes me wonder about the years that came before, and all the things I must ignore.” As a portrait of a relationship unraveling with catastrophic consequences, this ranks with Richard and Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights. Time may judge this a classic – just like Nastasia’s earlier albums, particularly The Blackened Air, her most bleakly orchestral release, from 2001.

Hilary Hawke Brings Her Fresh, Original Oldtime-Flavored Banjo Tunes to the Lower East Side

Banjo player Hilary Hawke has been on the front lines of the New York Americana and oldtimey scenes since the early teens. But unlike a lot of hotshot pickers, she’s more about tunes and tunesmithing than blistering banjo breakdowns. She’s opening an excellent triplebill tomorrow night, July 26 at 7 PM at the downstairs room at the Rockwood. Acoustic songwriter Mali Obomsawin, frontwoman of politically-inspired Boston Americana group Lula Wiles and fearless gospel/blues/oldtimey songwriter Queen Esther follow on the bill. It’s not clear who’s playing when, but everybody on the bill is worth hearing. Cover is $15.

Hawke’s new album LilyGild is streaming at Bandcamp. True to the theme of the album, which is “why overdo it,” more or less, Hawke chooses her spots throughout a mix of seven instrumental and a classic folk song,  joined by Reed Stutz on guitar. Her songs are fresh and translucent, but she loves unexpected tempo shifts and syncopation. She also gets a pretty amazing amount of resonance out of her axe, squeezing every millisecond of sustain out of the strings.

The first track is Three Snakes, a catchy but rhythmically labyrinthine dance tune with a goofy little interlude that’s too good to spoil. Once in awhile, Stutz will pick his way up with a little bassline to follow Hawke’s incisively syncopated picking.

Granddad’s Favorite//Fort Smith Breakdown, a diptych, has a couple of layers of guitar mingling with Hawke’s spacious picking, then the two go doublespeed on the way out. Crossing the River has a moody, unsettled undercurrent in contrast with Stutz’s steady forward drive. Then Hawke and Stutz move to the mic for a rustically waltzing version of Jack of Diamonds.

Her spiky phrases contrast with sleek, slithery turnaruonds in the aptly titled Happy Hollow. Beehive’s Chorus is the most modern-sounding number here: it could be a brief, early Jayme Stone tune. Hawke and Stutz wind up the album with the title track, packed with deft, wide-angle soul chords, slides and hammer-ons. Who needs to gild the lily when you have music like this.

What’s more, Hawke mentions on the Bandcamp page that these instrumentals are part of a collection that also includes a series of darker, cinematic pieces for electronic keys and banjo. Hopefully someday we’ll get to hear those too.

Elegantly Exhilarating Klezmer Band Mames Babegenush Make a Welcome Return to Manhattan

Danish klezmer band Mames Babegenush made New York music history a couple of years ago for being part of what appears to have been the final installment of Golden Fest, the annual mega-concert of Balkan and Balkan-adjacent music that ran uninterrupted for more than three decades and was arguably the most exhilarating annual New York music event. The previous weekend, the band had played a marathon series of shows, from the Lower East Side to Curry Hill, chronicled in part here after a wild night at the Carlton Arms Hotel.

For those who can’t get enough of bracing minor keys and sizzling solos, Mames Babegenush are on the road for their “COVID Can’t Keep Klezmer Down” tour, with a gig at Drom on July 20 at 8 PM; you can get in for $20 in advance. And an advance listen to two new tunes the band have recently recorded proves this irrepressible bunch of party animal virtuosos are no worse for the layoff during the global totalitarian takeover. The first song, Elvermose Cocek reminds how much fun they can have with tunes from outside the klezmer demimonce, in this case a pouncing Balkan dance with a gorgeous, soaring solo from clarinetist Emil Goldschmidt.

The second is Night Flight, a gorgeous nocturne which their drummer Morten Aero opens with a mysterious cimbalom solo before bassist Andreas Mollerhoj introduces a tiptoeing pulse, setting the stage for a deep-sky solo from flugelhorn player Bo Rande. That’s the loud and soft of what you can expect from a band whose nine-album output of originals and imaginative takes on klezmer classics includes one titled Klezmer Killed the Radio Star.