New York Music Daily

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Category: murder ballad mondays

Another Killer Show in Brooklyn on March 24

Funny how crowds at the same event vary from one night to the next, isn’t it? February’s installment of Murder Ballad Mondays at Branded Saloon in Fort Greene was a mobscene. Last month’s was basically limited to  artists who’d played previous editions of the monthly celebration of twisted desire in song from throughout the ages. In a stroke of counterintuitivity, most murder ballads have traditionally been sung by men, yet most of the performers at Murder Ballad Mondays have been women. A necessary antidote? Karmic payback? Food for thought.

Ironically, despite the light turnout, this particular night was the best yet. Peg Simone opened, minimalist and inscrutable on piano, her back to the crowd. In a coolly enigmatic alto. she delivered a long, rainswept , eerily chiming noir blues. From there she segued into a hypnotically enveloping, quietly vengeful number, like Nico tackling Long Black Veil. Neville Elder of folk noir favorites Thee Shambels followed with a long, ghoulishly detailed Donner Party-inspired tale: Great Plains gothic as the Strawbs might have done it

Miwa Gemini reinvented the Nancy Sinatra hit Bang Bang from the point of view of a real femme fatale  And after playing the surrealistically Gun Club-ish, slide guitar-fueled coda to her Grizzly Rose song cycle, she decided that her imaginary muse doesn’t die in the end: she ends up being the killer.

Cello rock duo the Whiskey Girls – Patricia Santos and Tara Hanish – made their first New York appearance since a sizzling set here late last year, opening with tensefly syspenseful, stark minor-key blues and then a luridly menacing ba-bump latin swing tune, Not Anymore: “The view from the stage ain’t like the view from the floor,” Santos intoned ominously. If memory serves right, they also did a stark chamber pop version of the jazz standard Wild Is the Wind. And creepy parlor pop duo Charming Disaster – who host the night – treated the crowd to a gorgeously harmony-driven number with intricate call-and-response vocals and also a deadpan cover of a Foster the People cheeseball pop ditty. Guitarist Jeff Morris was game, even though his conspirator Ellia Bisker had to twist his arm to get him to play it.

All this capsulizes something you might not expect from Murder Ballad Mondays: it’s not just about dark storytelling or the comfort of imagining someone dead, most likely an ex. It’s about the tunes! The music here is every bit as good as the stories. This month’s performance – rescheduled to SUNDAY, April 24 at 8 PM – includes cameos by the brilliant, historically-fixated Elisa Flynn, haunting folk noir bandleader Jessie Kilguss, shortwave radio operator/pianist Steve Espinola as well as the hosts, who’ve been on a serious creative roll lately.

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Murder Ballad Mondays Makes a Mean Return to Fort Greene on the 21st

A monthly residency is a sneaky way to keep your fanbase coming out without stating the obvious, that they could always blow off your show this month and catch you next time around. After all, who can keep track of when the third Thursday of the month is going to fall, other than the band playing that night?

A lot of touring artists use small New York venues as an anchor when they’re here – or as a rehearsal room, basically. Barbes is home base to many of the elite among them, most notably Big Lazy (first Friday of the month at 10) and Rachelle Garniez (first Thursday at 8). There are also a trio of good acts using Sidewalk to keep themselves sharp: guitarist Lenny Molotov’s bitingly lyrical original oldtime swing band the Fascinators (first Saturday at 8), Mac McCarty‘s careening folk noir Kidd Twist Band (first Saturday at 9) and the darkly eclectic, avant garde-inclined Lorraine Leckie (third Friday at 11, including tonight the 18th).

This blog’s favorite monthly residency is Murder Ballad Mondays at Branded Saloon. Like Paul Wallfisch‘s late, lamented Small Beast at the Delancey, it’s blogbait. Any lazy blogger can save himself or herself four or five separate nights out and catch several of the best acts in town all on the same bill on an off night that doesn’t conflict with anything. And it’s become a hit with the local Fort Greene contingent.

Last month’s was a prime example: with cold rain pelting the slush outside, torchy noir singer Ellia Bisker and her guitarslinging Charming Disaster conspirator Jeff Morris packed the place and treated folks to a deliciously lowlit, lurid evening. They used to treat the crowd to at least a short set, but lately they’ve been teasing everybody with just a song or two. This time out their contributions were a slinky version of a shadowy, swing-infused new number with some hilarious rhyme schemes as well as Murderer, Charming Disaster’s signature song of sorts, a coldly wary, subtle cautionary tale reminding that the perfect crime has no witnesses.

Jessi Robertson set the bar high right off the bat. Hauntingly resonant, deeply soul-infused vocals fused with lead guitarist Rony Corcos’ similarly lingering, bluesy lead lines and elegantly jangly phrasing. Part of Robertson’s appeal is that her big crescendos sometimes seem triumphant and celebratory when they’re actually venomous, and their first song was a prime example. They also made their way through the bristling underbrush of a folk noir number and closed with a fiery PJ Harvey cover.

Liz Tormes, this city’s leading exponent of murder ballads, brought the ambience down to a blue-flame intensity, mining the catalogs of Peter Rowan and Bill Monroe, her own calmly and murderously alluring repertoire and closed with a stark Elizabethan suicide song. Former Snow frontwoman Hilary Downes sang a calmly brooding version of the Townes Van Zant classic Pancho & Lefty. And Mudville – singer/keyboardist Marilyn Carino and brilliant bassist Ben Rubin – kept the simmeringly ominous ambience going with noir cabaret takes on the Misfits and Tom Waits as well as an even more allusively venomous original.

That’s what makes Murder Ballad Mondays so interesting – it’s taking the concept of songs about killing people far beyond the time-honored Britfolk/Appalachian tradition. The more you know about music, the more you realize just how much we have in common: no matter the culture, people around the world just love to kill each other. And then write about it. This coming Murder Ballad Monday on March 21 starts at 8 sharp and features Charming Disaster, Elisa Flynn – whose rapturously haunting voice is matched by her historically-informed, erudite tunesmithing – and others TBA who will probably be just as good.

Is It Safe to Say That Murder Ballad Mondays Are Killer?

It took four months worth of Murder Ballad Mondays before somebody played Rock Salt and Nails. It’s one of the real classics of folk noir. And it’s well known. Populist folksinger Nevada Smith gets credited for it, but it’s unlike anything else in his catalog and has a vernacular that looks back as far as the 1850s. And it’s as disconsolate as it is vengeful: the violence is implied, and even then, not til the last verse. Bobtown guitarist and songwriter Karen Dahlstrom channeled that sadness with distance and understatement, saving her powerful wail for a creepy a-cappella performance of her own grim Old West outlaw ballad Streets of Pocatello , from her brilliant Idaho-themed album Gem State. Then she picked up her guitar and did a new one that was a lot quieter but just as eerie.

That’s Murder Ballad Mondays in a nutshell: elite performers having fun with deadly tales from across the centuries and from their own repertoire as well. So far, the two most popular covers at this well-attended monthly extravaganza seem to be Delia’s Gone and Henry Lee, referencing both Johnny Cash and Gillian Welch. But the originals are what people come for: organizers Jeff Morris and Ellia Bisker, better known as torchily menacing parlor pop duo Charming Disaster, pack a lot into two hours. The next one is Monday, January 18 at 8 PM at Branded Saloon in Ft. Greene (closest stop is Bergen St. on the 2/3) featuring ominous baritone crooner Sean Kershaw and other similarly minded acts.

Charming Disaster have treated crowds here to short sets at previous Murder Ballad Mondays installments; last time around, they did just a single number, the allusively torchy Ghost Story (although they played a full set at Pete’s Candy Store this past Saturday night, packed the place and delivered an actually very funny show that included both a devastatingly tongue-in-cheek Led Zep cover and a new one about breaking strings onstage).

A duo version of phantasmagorical circus rock/noir cabaret band Orphan Jane – accordionist Tim Cluff and his trumpeter – also joined the festivities last time out, firing off a furtive number simply titled Murder as well as The Mansion Song, a menacingly vaudevillian narrative whose message seems to be that it pays to be cautious when seeking revenge against the one-tenth-of-one-percent: they can afford a bigger army than you.

Other artists included art-rock luminary and multi-instrumentalist Serena Jost, who held the crowd rapt with a typically allusive new tale about murder on the gallery floor, and an icily doomed cover from the current Nordic art-pop catalog. And singer Karen Poliski worked a similar intensity as she went to the well for a chilling Handsome Family cover.

Ventanas Bring Their Exhilarating Mashup of Flamenco, Middle Eastern and Ladino Sounds to the Lower East

Is there a more enticing way to open an album than with a bristling oud solo? That’s what Toronto band Ventanas do on their new album Arrelumbre – meaning “shine” in Ladino, the Sephardic Jewish dialect, and streaming at Bandcamp. As the song goes along, Dennis Duffin’s flamenco guitar climbs and intertwines with Jessica Hana Deutsch’s violin over a shapeshifting groove as frontwoman Tamar Ilana’s voice sails overhead. All that pretty well capsulizes what you get on the record, conjuring images of dark-haired señors and señoritas passing around a bottle of arak against the backdrop of a blazing bonfire, crackling castanets and twirling dervishes, an enchanting and genre-warping cross-cultural party. The eclectically intense Mediterranean/Romany/Middle Eastern/klezmer acoustic jamband are bringing all this cross-pollinated fun to a free show at Drom on January 15 (actually the wee hours of the 16th) at around half past midnight.

After that first track, the album really gets cooking with the lickety-split Dedo Mili Na Pazar, its eerie Balkan vocal harmonies over a spiky thicket of Demetrios Petsalakis’ baglama lute bolstered by pizzicato violins (that’s Lemon Bucket Orkestra‘s Mark Marczyk on the other one). The title suite of Moroccan dances rises amd then bursts out of Duffin’s elegant flamenco intro in flurries of shivery violin, Ilana’s honeyed vocals providing a tender contrast – and then the band picks it up even further. Then they mash up flamenco and classical Persian balladry.

The well-traveled Balkan folk song Makedonsko Devojce doesn’t bear much resemblance to the cult favorite Black Sea Hotel version, but it’s reinvented all the same, in this case as a mashup of flanemco, Romany guitar jazz and jaunty folk-rock with an incendiary violin solo at the center. The album’s most epic track, Elianto, is a deliciously slinky, misterioso number fueled by Ilana’s low-flame vocals and Petsalakis’ oud.

Libertad has a similarly edgy Middle Easter flavor, blended with flamenco intensity at double the speed. La Sala Del Crimen pairs lustrous violin against Duffin’s elegant fretwork, while Si Te Quiero offers a dusky launching pad for fast-fingered strumming. The gorgeously bittersweet, enigmatic Landarico pairs Ilana’s wounded vocals against an austere wash of strings, then Petsalakis’ oud takes over, ambered and stately. The album winds up with Ven A Mi (Colombianas), a lively blend of flamenco and Romany guitar jazz. Toronto may have earned infamy as home to a broken social scene, but this is the together one: it’s hard to imagine anybody having more fun onstage than this merry band.

Murder and Mayhem in Brooklyn, Again

One of Brooklyn’s most unique music scenes is growing in the wilds of Fort Greene, where noir chamber pop connoisseurs Charming Disaster – Ellia Bisker of the darkly catchy Sweet Soubrette and Jeff Morris of the lushly orchestrated, latin-tinged, phantasmagorical Kotorino – host a monthly salon where artists from many different genres get together to explore the darkest side of songwriting. It’s only fitting that the latest installment of Murder Ballad Mondays would take place on the darkest day of the year, this December 21 at 8 PM at Branded Saloon. Featured artists include enigmatic art-rock cellist/chanteuse Serena Jost, haunting High Plains gothic songstress Karen Dahlstrom (of folk noir stars Bobtown), the luridly theatrical, Brechtian Orphan Jane, Americana singer-songwriters Karen Poliski and Terry Radigan and others.

One explanation for the monthly extravaganza’s popularity could be that the artists here don’t limit themselves to old Appalachian folk songs or Child ballads. They’re pushing the limits of how far murder ballads can go: who knows, maybe this could become more than a demimonde. As the turnout here proves, there’s no shortage of material, not to mention people who like creepy music. This past month’s lineup, in particular, featured some of New York’s elite songsmiths, who turned in some pretty amazing performances.

Jessi Robertson, with her impassioned, otherworldly, rustic blues voice, got the night started on a strong note with a morosely stately waltz. “Should have burned it to the ground, dance in the dark…it’s a sad old story,” she intoned, low and gloomy. Then she referenced Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles over a mesh of watery, open guitar chords.

Sharply literate Americana parlor pop chanteuse Robin Aigner followed with an almost gleeful take of Delia’s Gone – springboarding off the Johnny Cash version – and then reinvented Neil Young’s Down By the River as a brooding minor-key waltz. In between, she sang a brand-new song, a swinging, catchy oldtimey strut: “I can’t shut you up, I can’t shut you out but I can shoot you and put you in the ground,” she grinned, explaining that the victim was a composite of ex-boyfriends rather than a specific individual. Yikes!

Jessie Kilguss made her US debut on harmonium (she played it on her most recent European tour) on a riveting, soaringly enveloping take of the Nick Cave version of the old standard Henry Lee. as well as making her way through a rapt, stark take of an original, Hell Creek, backed by guitarist John Kengla’s icy, late Beatlesque chorus-pedal guitar. Guitarist Arthur Schupach led his Donald & Lydia duo project through another take of Henry Lee, this one based on the Jolie Holland version. Speaking of which, that’s who Ellis Dodi frontwoman Erica Diloreto brought to mind, throughout a mix of material including a hilarious acoustic punk tune where she dropped a whole slew of f-bombs on a clueless ex.

Juliet Strong played kinetic, rippling gospel and ragtime-fueled piano on a couple of originals, while Charming Disaster tantalized the crowd with a single tongue-in-cheek number about a couple of ghosts in love, pulsing with intricate, sophisticated vocal call-and-response between Bisker and Morris. And a familiar bass face from the Lower East Side scene took a haphazard turn on piano, drawing some chuckles with a bitter 6/8 ballad about killing the tech-obsessed, micromanaging boss from hell. A ghoulabilly number about doing in the sleazy front guy from a hydrofracking operation didn’t go over as well. And a cover of a brand-new, as-yet-untitled Karla Rose & the Thorns serial killer narrative – done as a dirgey bolero with horror-film chromatics – capsulized the danger of a guy with Lou Reed vocal range plundering the repertoire of an immensely more powerful singer. Which speaks to Murder Ballad Mondays’ value as lab for experimentation as much as entertainment.