New York Music Daily

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Category: nashvillle gothic

Yet Another Grim, Brilliantly Lyrical, Oldtime-Flavored Album From Curtis Eller

Charismatic banjo player and bandleader Curtis Eller is yet another first-class songwriter who got brain-drained out of New York by the the real estate speculators’ blitzkrieg. But he’s never stopped writing dark, witheringly insightful, brutally funny folk noir songs. His latest album A Poison Melody – streaming at his music page – is his hardest-rocking record yet, and it’s as grimly relevant as ever.

The title track, Radiation Poison sets the stage. Don’t let the bluster of those of jump blues-inspired horns fool you: this is about an invisible killer. Eller’s references may be Nagasaki and the New Mexico atom bomb tests, but in the post-Fukushima era, the song has even more relevance. “Everybody’s been exposed,” Eller warns.

Eller introduces the dirty-water garage rock stomp of No Soap Radio as “A no-bullshit story about what happened in ’63 – how come it’s always Texas when there’s a murder on tv?” William Dawson’s vibraphone lingers in the background with the torchy harmony vocals of Dana Marks and Stacy Wolfson on the album’s title cut, a doomed soul ballad.

Jack Fleishman’s loose-limbed drums propel Union Hall, a New Orleans-spiced romp alluding to the 1968 Detroit riots, but with current-day irony:

I’m gonna call the police on my neighbor
I’m gonna take my pistol downtown
The Constitution said I can shoot what I want
Everybody get down

Nobody is surprised by the die-off in These Birds, a stark eco-disaster parable. Pay the Band, a big audience favorite at shows, has gospel piano from Tom Merrigan. As Eller sees it, money is like “morphine on the front line.” And, “You gotta pay the band if you wanna watch those losers dance.” It gets even better from there: the punchlines are too good to give away.

The gospel atmosphere is more subdued and elegaic in Lenny Bruce. Cowles plays flute over Eller’s spare, steady, ominous banjo in Waist Deep in the Big Muddy, a caustically aphoristic World War II basic training parable in period-perfect blues vernacular.

After that, Eller does a diptych about a riot; the sly introduction signals the twisted jubilation of the second, a cynical reminder how calamities are always heaven for profiteers. He winds up the album with the sobering No Word to Choose, Hugh Crumley’s steady bass holding the center amid subtly tricky syncopation, up to a final conflagration. In the post-3/11, post-9/11 era, we need clear-eyed guys like Eller more than ever.

Soaring, Haunting Folk Noir Band Bobtown Make a Mighty Return to the Stage

Bobtown are the most individualistic folk noir band you could possibly imagine. They have soaring three-part vocal harmonies – and they’re fronted by their drummer. They’ve also been AWOL lately since they’ve been working on a new album. Last weekend, they packed the big room at the Rockwood and played most of the tracks from the record, Chasing the Sun, due out at the end of next month. If the show was any indication, it’s going to be amazing.

Everybody in the band plays a lot of instruments. Bandleader Katherine Etzel began the show on ukulele, then switched to a big, imposing standup drumkit. Karen Dahlstrom played guitar for most of the set but then broke out her banjo, something she rarely does live. Jen McDearman took turns on both lead and harmony vocals while adding percussion and eerily twinkling glockenspiel. Alan Lee Backer switched between electric and acoustic lead guitar while bassist Dan Shuman held down the low end, bolstered on a couple of tunes by stark resonance from guest cellist Serena Jost (who also plays on the record).

They opened with Devil Down, a brightly shuffling tune with thematic if not musical resemblance to Tom Waits’ Down in the Hole:. As Etzel intimated, the new album is slightly more optimistic than the ghostly tales that populate much of the band’s previous output. After that, McDearman didn’t waste any time taking the music back in that direction with Hazel, a banjo number about a crazy woman who’s reached the end of her rope.

Etzel went back to lead vocals for Let You Go, a kiss-off anthem with echoes of the chain gang songs the band were exploring in the early part of the decade. Daughters of the Dust, a spaghetti western bluegrass tune, kept the charming/sinister dynamic going, the women’s shiny harmonies in contrast with the emotionally depleted Dust Bowl narrative. Then they picked up the pace with the Buddy Holly-ish Come on Home.

In My Bones turned out to be classic Bobtown, a chirpy, blackly amusing tune about how to cheat the man in black when he makes a “certain visitation.” With its hushed ambience, This Is My Heart could have been an especially melancholy number from a Dolly Parton bluegrass record. Then the group built to a big, vamping peak with Kryptonite and its Hey Jude-style chorus.

The biggest surprise of the night, with Jost on cello again, was a slow, spare, hazy cover of Tom Petty’s American Girl: who knew the lyrics were so sad? They closed with the night’s most mighty, majestic number, No Man’s Land, sung with gospel-infused intensity by Dahlstrom. In a year of full-frontal assaults on women’s rights from Ohio all the way to the Mexican border, it’s a new national anthem:

No man’s words can still my voice
No man can tell me where I stand
No man’s will can take my choice
I am no man’s land

Transcendent Lyrical and Vocal Power From Mary Lee’s Corvette at the Mercury

Saturday night at the Mercury, Mary Lee’s Corvette put on a clinic in eclectic tunesmithing, smartly conversational interplay, brilliant lyricism and spine-tlngling vocals. There literally isn’t a style that frontwoman/guitarist Mary Lee Kortes can’t write in: powerpop, Americana, glam rock, cabaret, classical, jazz, and psychedelia, to name a few. She did a lot of that, and held the crowd spellbound with that crystalline voice, which can leap two octaves or more, effortlessly. She’s been regarded as arguably the best singer in New York for a long time (noir haunter Karla Rose and Indian belter Roopa Mahadevan are good points of comparison).

Throughout a tantalizing forty-five minute set, Kortes validated everything good that’s ever been said about her. The band opened with the gritty new wave-flavored kiss-off anthem Need for Religion (as in, “Maybe it was just my need for religion that made me believe in you,” and it gets meaner from there). New lead guitarist Jack Morer played purposeful, incisiive fills on his Strat while new bassist Cait O’Riordan – founding member of the Pogues – shifted from nimble, dancing lines to snarling upward runs, and swung hard. Not only does she totally get Kortes’ songwriting – which some players can’t – but she also makes a good visual foil, two tall blondes bopping onstage and intertwining riffs.

Smartly, Kortes paired the warily triumphant garage-psych anthem Out From Under It with Learn  From What I Dream, with its edgy chromatic riffage and 60s Laurel Canyon psych-folk ambience. Through the night, the dream world was a frequent reference point, considering that Kortes is also a compelling prose writer and editor, with a new book, Dreaming of Dylan: 115 Dreams About Bob just out. Since Kortes has had more than a few (including a touching “don’t quit writing songs, no matter what” dream, as she explained to the crowd), it makes sense that she’d pull a collection like that together.

The best song of the night might have been Well by the Water, a corrosively metaphorical, lilting amthem that works on the innumerable, Elvis Costello-esque levels that Kortes loves so much, as apt a portrait of tightlipped Midwestern dysfunction as a history of human civilization itself. After that, the band stretched out in a bitingly bluesy take of Dylan’s Meet Me in the Morning – which Mary Lee’s Corvette famously recorded on their live cover of Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks album.

O’Riordan approached the slow, lingering bittersweet mini-epic Portland Michigan – a not-so-fond childhood reminiscence – with finesse but also as a search for impactful harmony, something few bass players do. They closed with a new song, a series of dreamscapes over a pulsing, Stonesy vamp – which Kortes used as a launching pad for her most spellbinding leaps of the night. Good to see this band back at a venue where they’ve put on similarly transcendent shows over the years.

Janglerock Heaven at Union Pool This Week

Last night at Union Pool was a feast of jangle, and clang, and twang, with enough reverb to lower the air a few degrees, it seemed. Girls on Grass frontwoman Barbara Endes was especially psyched to be opening for her favorite band, which speaks volumes about how she writes and plays. Few acts have someone out front who can not only sing and put a tune together but also play as ferociously eclectic lead guitar as she did throughout a set that could have gone on twice as long and everybody still would have wanted more.

Although Endes is a generation younger, her band often sounds like the Dream Syndicate with a woman out front. Her band doesn’t duel like Steve Wynn’s group, but the songs have a similarly edgy blend of Americana and riff-driven rock, and a psychedelic side. This particular version of the group switches out Sean Eden on second guitar for David Weiss, whose honkytonk and blues licks made an incisive, burning counterpart to Endes’ slithery, precise cascades and chordlets on her lefty model Fender Jazzmaster. Bassist Dave Mandl got all of two bars in one of the later songs for a solo but made the most of his rise out of the murk. Drummer Nancy Polstein swung hard and traded coy beats on her crash cymbal with the bandleader on the intro to one of the early numbers.

Much of the set was drawn from the band’s forthcoming album Dirty Power, due out momentarily. From its soul-clap intro, through a surreal blend of honkytonk and Dream Syndicate stomp, Down at the Bottom spoke for a generation of displaced artists trying to not to lose hope (and their homes) amid a blitzkrieg of gentrification. And did Endes change the last chorus from “Come hang with me” to “Don’t hang with me?” Just how much of a cautionary tale is this?

The rest of the set was just as catchy and compelling. The slowly crescendoing, anthemic Friday Night perfectly captured the electricity of being “in like with a chick who likes good music” at a good show. The opening number, Father Says Why had a deliciously watery, careening clang, while Drowning in Ego evoked a jaunty late 80s vibe with Endes’ meticulous, lickety-split quasi-bluegrass riffs. Although Endes’ vocals had their usual crystalline bite, one of the best tunes of the night was the spaghetti-surf instrumental Two Places at Once, with a remarkable similarity, stylistically if not melodically, to the headliners’ adventures in surf rock. Endes has obviously listened deeply.

The Sadies have gotten a lot of ink here. And why not? Who wouldn’t want to go see a band with two brilliant lead guitarists – brothers Travis and Dallas Good – and who came out for what could have been a single encore but ended up playing a total of eight songs that went on for as long as Girls on Grass’ set. Drummer Mike Belitsky’s funereal accents on his cymbal bells lowlit one of the handful of the band’s brooding, Americana-flavored waltzes, Cut Corners. Bassist Sean Dean plays an upright so, this time, he unfortunately wasn’t very present in the mix beyond a low resonance.

Counterintuitively, the best song of the night was the quietest one, the band hauntingly shuffling through The Good Years, a crushingly ironic tale of a mismatched couple’s tragic miscommunications: “She never asked him, he wouldn’t say,” Travis Good intoned.

The rest of almost two hours onstage featured everything from bouncy, reverbtoned surf rock, to punkgrass – a lickety-split remake of the old folk song Pretty Polly included – to waves of Brian Jonestown Massacre-tinged psychedelia and a handful of garage rock covers including a slamming remake of the Jay Walkers’ I Got My Own Thing Going. The Sadies are back at Union Pool tonight, April 3 at around 9:30, then they’re playing two sets tomorrow night, April 4, starting about an hour earlier. Cover is $20 and worth every bit.

Mara Connor Brings Broodingly Catchy Tunes Back to Her Old Williamsburg Haunts

Mara Connor brought a catchy mix of subtly slashing, Americana-flavored songs along with other material and a talented Los Angeles-based band, making their New York debut on her old South Williamsburg turf at Baby’s All Right last night. Connor has a purist janglerock sense for catchy hooks and occasionally stinging lyrics: Jessie Kilguss is a good point of comparison. It’s a fair guess Connor has southern roots – there’s a twang in that voice, and a friendliness, Brooklyn soujourn or not. She now calls the left coast home after leaving the South 11th Street apartment she’d shared with a roommate, who was part of what appeared to be a sold-out crowd.

Too bad Connor’s acoustic guitar wasn’t in the mix for the first and best number of the night, No Fun. It wasn’t the iconic Stooges song – it’s the distantly noir-tinged, woundedly evocative new single from Connor’s forthcoming debut album. And it didn’t come together until the chorus kicked in and her lead guitarist hit his distortion pedal. Lana Del Rey, if you still haven’t gone off to where memes go to die, eat your heart out to this.

From there, it wasn’t all downhill. Connor’s originals were strong, as was one of the covers. That choice spoke volumes: an obscure, quietly scathing, gently circling Britfolk narrative, Fools Run the Game (was it Sandy Denny who did it the first time around?).

Connor followed the hit single with a brooding, world-weary, reflective freeway tableau – Los Angeles will make you world-weary by thirty, no doubt. After a lowlit, downcast reflection on an ill-fated fling with a dissolute older guy here, she played a deliciously venomous kiss-off to a sensitive artist type who turns out to be just the opposite. As Mary Lee Kortes once said, “Never mess with a songwriter: we always get even in the end.”

Connor sings in a supple, subtle mezzo-soprano with more than a hint of bite. But when she goes up the scale, she strains. Having made her album at a famous corporate Nashville studio, there may have been people around her who pushed her to do something she’s not really comfortable with right now. There’s a duet with Langhorne Slim on the forthcoming record; choosing instead to play the song live with the girlyboy who’s arguably the wimpiest songwriter to come out of New York in the last twenty years was a big mistake. Is Lach still kicking around? That would have been an improvement.

What’s the future for artists like Connor? Her songs are catchy and memorable: you feel like you’ve lived in them. But until the corporate dinosaurs die off and the stadiums where they play revert to the public who financed them, singer-songwriters are going to have to make do with touring the City Wineries of the world, hawking t-shirts and vinyl (because that’s the only recorded music format left that can be monetized) at the merch table and Bandcamp, and maybe getting lucky with a movie placement or two.  Here’s wishing all that to Mara Connor.

The 25 Best New York Concerts of 2018

2018’s best concert was Golden Fest. For the second year in a row, the annual two-night Brooklyn festival of Balkan, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean music tops the list here. This year’s edition in mid-January began with the original gangsters of New York Balkan brass music, Zlatne Uste – who run the festival – and ended around two in the morning, 36 hours later, with Slavic Soul Party spinoff the Mountain Lions playing otherworldly, microtonal Turkish zurna oboe music. In between, there were equally haunting womens’ choirs, more brass than you could count, rustic string bands playing ancient dance tunes, the most lavish klezmer big band imaginable, and a searing Greek heavy metal group, among more than seventy acts from all over the globe.

And there was tons of Eastern European and Turkish food – every kind of pickle ever invented, it seemed, plus stews and sausages and dips and desserts and drinks too. Golden Fest 2019 takes place January 18 and 19: it’s a New York rite of passage. Pretty much everybody does this at least once. The festival is going strong right now, but perish the thought that Grand Prospect Hall, the gilded-age wedding palace on the south side of Park Slope, might someday be bulldozed to make room for yet another empty “luxury” condo. If that happens, it’s all over. Catch it while you can.

The rest of the year was just as epic, if you add it all up. That live music continues to flourish in this city, despite the blitzkrieg of gentrification and the devastation of entire neighborhoods to make room for speculator property, is reason for optimism. That’s a rare thing these days, but the immigrants moving into the most remote fringes of Queens and Brooklyn, along with many millions born and raised here, still make up a formidable artistic base.

On the other hand, scroll down this list. Beyond Golden Fest, every single one of the year’s best shows happened either at a small club, or at a venue subsidized by nonprofit foundation money.

OK, small clubs have always been where the real action is. And historically speaking, larger venues in this city have always been reticent to book innovative, individualistic talent. But there’s never been less upward mobility available to artists than there is now. Which mirrors the city’s changing demographics.

Recent immigrants face the same situation as the majority of New Yorkers; if you’re working sixty hours a week just to pay your share of the rent, where do you find the time, let alone the money, to go out? And the ones who have money, the privileged children moving in and displacing working class people from their homes in places like Bushwick and Bed-Stuy, don’t support the arts.

So here’s to small clubs, nonprofit money, hardworking immigrants and the superhuman tenacity and resilience of New York’s greatest musicians. The rest of this list is in chronological order since trying to rank these shows wouldn’t make much sense. If you or your band didn’t make the list, sorry, that doesn’t mean you don’t rate. There were so many good concerts this year that it feels criminal to whittle it down to a reasonably digestible number.

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society at the Miller Theatre, 2/3/18
High-octane suspense, spy themes, blustery illustrations of doom in outer space and an Ellington-inspired epic by this era’s most politically relevant large jazz ensemble

Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble at NYU, 2/10/18
Just back from a deep-freeze midwestern tour, the trumpeter/santoorist/singer’s epic Middle Eastern big band jazz suite Not Two – which the group played in its entirety – was especially dynamic and torrential

Greg Squared’s Great Circles at Barbes, 3/1/18
Two long sets of eerie microtones, edgy melismas and sharp-fanged chromatics from these ferocious Balkan jammers

Lara St. John and Matt Herskowitz in the Crypt at the Church of the Intercession, 3/15/18
The pyrotechnic violinist and her pianist collaborator turned a mysterious, intimate underground Harlem space into a fiery klezmer and Balkan dance joint

Tarek Yamani at Lincoln Center, 3/23/18
The Lebanese-American pianist and his trio evoked peak-era 70s McCoy Tyner with more Middle Eastern influences, a confluence of Arabian Gulf khaliji music and American jazz with a healthy dose of Afro-Cuban groove

Dark Beasts at the Gatehouse, 3/27/18
The three young women in the band – Lillian Schrag, Trixie Madell and Violet Paris-Hillmer – painted their faces and then switched off instruments throughout a tantalizingly brief set of menacing, haunting, often environmentally-themed, often glamrock-inspired originals. What was most impressive is that nobody in the band is more than eleven years old.

The Rhythm Method Quartet at Roulette, 3/29/18
Magical, otherworldly wails, wisps and dazzling displays of extended technique in the all-female string quartet’s program of 21st century works by Lewis Neilson, Kristin Bolstad and the quartet’s Marina Kifferstein and Meaghan Burke. It ended with a swordfight between the violinists.

Hannah vs. the Many at LIC Bar, 4/4/18
Frontwoman Hannah Fairchild’s banshee voice channeled white-knuckle angst, wounded wrath and savage insight as she delivered her torrents of puns and double entendres over a tight, pummeling punk rock backdrop. There is no lyrical rock band in the world better than this trio.

Klazz-Ma-Tazz at City Winery, 4/8/18
Violinist Ben Sutin’s pyrotechnic band transcended their klezmer origins and the early hour of eleven in the morning at this ferociously eclectic brunch show, reinventing classic themes and jamming out with equal parts jazz virtuosity and feral attack.

Shattered Glass at Our Savior’s Atonement, 4/13/18
The string orchestra stood in a circle, facing each other and then whirled and slashed through Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho Suite for Strings, plus harrowing works by Shostakovich and hypnotic pieces by Caroline Shaw and Philip Glass. 

Yacine Boulares, Vincent Segal and Nasheet Waits at Lincoln Center, 4/19/18
The multi-reedman, cellist and drummer hit breathtaking peaks and made their way through haunted valleys throughout Boulares’ new Abu Sadiya Suite of Tunisian jazz nocturnes

The Chelsea Symphony at the American Museum of Natural History, 4/22/18
Other than a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, maybe, it’s impossible to imagine a more lavish, titanic concert anywhere in New York this year. The intrepid west side orchestra enveloped the audience in an environmentally-themed program: the world premiere of an ominous Michael Boyman eco-disaster narrative, a shout-out to whales by Hovhaness, and John Luther Adams’ vast Become Ocean, played by three separate groups in the cathedral-like confines of the museum’s ocean life section.

The Dream Syndicate at the Hoboken Arts & Music Festival, 5/6/18
That the best New York rock show of the year happened in New Jersey speaks for itself. Steve Wynn’s legendary, revitalized, careeningly psychedelic band schooled every other loud, noisy act out there with their feral guitar duels and smoldering intensity.

Rose Thomas Bannister at the Gowanus Dredgers Society Boathouse, 6/16/18
A low-key neighborhood gig by the ferociously lyrical, broodingly psychedelic, protean Shakespearean-inspired songstress, playing what she called her “bluegrass set” since drummer Ben Engel switched to mandolin for this one.

The Sadies at Union Pool, 6/30/18
A ringing, reverb-iced feast of jangle and clang and twang, plus a couple of trips out into the surf and some sizzling bluegrass at one of this year’s free outdoor shows

Charming Disaster at Pete’s Candy Store, 7/3/18
What’s most impressive about New York’s creepiest parlor pop duo is how much new material Jeff Morris and Ellia Bisker have – and how eclectic it is. Hints of metal, psychedelia and the group’s signature folk noir and latin-tinged sounds, with some of the most memorably macabre stories in all of rock.

Ben Holmes’ Naked Lore and Big Lazy at Barbes, 8/24/18
The perennially tuneful, cinematic trumpeter/composer’s edgy Middle Eastern-tinged trio, followed by this city’s ultimate cinematic noir instrumentalists, who took a dive down to dub as deep as their early zeroes adventures in immersively menacing reverb guitar sonics.

Souren Baronian’s Taksim at Barbes, 9/7/18
The ageless octogenarian multi-reedman and king of Middle Eastern jazz channeled deep soul, and Parker and Coltrane, and seemed to be having the time of his life throwing elbows at the music, and his bandmates. The older he gets, the more energetic he sounds. His gig a month later in midtown – which was videotaped in its entirety – was awfully good too.

Mohamed Abozekry & Karkade at Roulette, 9/21/18
The Egyptian oudist and his sizzling, eclectic band paid their respects to a thousand years of otherworldly, kinetic sounds while adding an individualistic edge equally informed by American jazz, psychedelic rock and even funk.

International Contemporary Ensemble playing Missy Mazzoli’s Proving Up at the Miller Theatre, 9/26/18
An endlessly suspenseful, bloodcurdling, macabre New York debut for Mazzoli’s latest avant garde opera, a grim parable concerning the American Dream and how few actually attain it – and what happens when they don’t.

Cecile McLorin Salvant’s Ogresse at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 9/28/18
Everybody’s pick for this era’s best and most versatile jazz singer turns out to be as diverse and haunting a songwriter. Darcy James Argue conducted a mighty alllstar ensemble shifting between torch song, noir Americana and lavish, Gil Evans-like sweep throughout this withering suite, a parable of racial and gender relations in the age of Metoo.

Youssra El Hawary at Lincoln Center, 10/4/18
The Egyptian accordionist/singer and her fantastic band mashed up classic levantine sounds with retro French chanson and an omnipresent, politically fearless edge, no less defiant when she was singing about pissing on walls in the early, optimistic days of the Arab Spring.

The Ahmet Erdogdular Ensemble at St. Paul’s Chapel at Columbia, 11/13/18
The brooding, charismatic Turkish crooner and his brilliant band – featuring Ara Dinkjian on oud, Dolunay violinist Eylem Basaldi and kanun player Didem Basar – played rapt, haunting anthems, ballads and improvisations spanning three hundred years’ worth of composers and influences.

Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah and many others at Symphony Space, 11/17/18
Giddens’ soaring wail, multi-instrumental chops and searingly relevant political focus was matched by powerful contralto singer, guitarist/banjoist and songwriter Kiah, who brought a similar, historically deep edge to a night of protest songs from across the ages.

Darkly Eclectic Psychedelia and Americana From the Reliably Captivating Raquel Bell

Singer and multi-instrumentalist Raquel Bell has built a wildly eclectic career that spans from her work with legendary/obscure psychedelic art-rockers Norden Bombsight, her aptly titled Dark Tips duo with violist Jessica Pavone and her solo writing, which ranges from post-Exene punk-flavored Americana to the furthest fringes of the avant garde. Bell’s debut album as a bandleader, Swandala is streaming at Bandcamp. It’s the most keyboard-oriented project she’s been involved with. Her next gig is at the Grand Star Jazz Club, 943 N. Broadway in Los Angeles on Jan 17.

The album’s opening track, Stones, was originally written for a Klaus Nomi tribute show. This lush, jauntily bubbling, swinging number is a cross between My Brightest Diamond and Explosions in the Sky. Bell describes Vibration Carnation as “seducing over-compression to capture a dream quality;” her outer space witch vocals loom over sweeping, starry keys, Jonathan Horne’s big dramatic stadium guitar chords, Lisa Cameron’s low-key bass and Adam Jones’ drums. “Maybe she wants to cross over to the dark side with me and all my friends,” Bell intones.

With its catchy, watery guitar multitracks rising to a slashing peak, A Solo to Mars looks back to early New Order before they went all synthy. Bell’s rainswept, wounded vocals glisten throughout the album’s best track, the melancholy country ballad Who Gets to Name the Name, Bob Hoffnar’s pedal steel soaring in the background against spiky reverb guitar accents.

The epic Wizard Liar is a growling psychedelic soul groove as the Dream Syndicate would do it – but with hints of dub reggae and a woman out front. The final two tracks – both the spare, acoustic It’s Growing In Your Mouth and the achingly bucolic Swan, with violin by Justin Scheibel, piano from Zac Traeger, theremin by Blair Bovbjerg, and Thor Harris on vibraphone – reflect the breakup of Bell’s “love affair with her trailer,” moving back from the boondocks to Austin. It’s both a good capsule history of Bell’s wide-ranging vision and a great late-night immersive listen.

Rhiannon Giddens Winds Up a Transcendent Residency at Symphony Space

Late during her sold-out show at Symphony Space this past evening, Rhiannon Giddens revealed that she and the band had arrived at eleven in the morning and over the course of the next eight hours or so, basically pulled a set together from scratch. For the past couple of weeks, Giddens has been given a residency here: her first show as a bandleader this past Wednesday was frequently transcendent, a salute to important, politically fearless black women musicians from decades past. While tonight’s coda was just as richly informed by history, there was more of a focus on current-day artists, including the vastly talented cast which Giddens had assembled.

That she obviously had no fear of being upstaged by the charisma and powerful pipes of Toshi Reagon speaks to Giddens’ own presence. And although Reagon brought the house down with a couple of singalongs, she also seemed perfectly content to chill in her chair, stage left, and play subtle rhythm guitar during bluesy broadsides by Giddens or powerful multi-instrumentalist singer Amythyst Kiah.

Who is a force of nature and then some. What a discovery. With her darkly looming alto voice and nimble chops on both banjo and acoustic guitar, she was impossible to turn away from. Her most unforgettable moment of the night was a new song, Black Like That, a savagely insightful commentary on racism both from outside and within African-American circles. Its withering call-and-response – for example, “Can’t pass the paper bag test, ‘cause I’m black like that” – may be iconic someday. Another standout number – from a forthcoming Giddens-helmed album, Songs of Our Native Daughters, featuring several other black women banjo players – turned a rare, redemptive focus on the character of Polly Ann in the blues song John Henry. Inspired by a Mississippi hill country version of the song, this version has Polly Ann knowingly explaining that if we can just slow down that steam drill, we can all be free…and nobody, John Henry included, has to die.

Giddens’ most riveting turn in the spotlight was when she lead a rich tapestry of voices – which also included her gospel-singing sister Lalenja Harrington and Birds of Chicago’s Allison Russell – through a harrowing a-cappella original with a 19th century chain gang flavor. This one was based on an all-too-familiar narrative, a slave woman repeatedly raped and tortured and finally getting revenge. But when the men find the overseer’s bloody corpse, they come for mama with the rope ,and she ends up in the tree – the final chorus is “And she won’t come down.” Chills. 

Another high point was a tantalizingly brief Nina Simone medley, reprising what Giddens and a slightly different lineup had explored a couple of days earlier here. The version of Four Women was even more directly, knowingly intense than the take Giddens had delivered earlier in the week.

Russell distinguished herself most on clarinet, with a full, envelopingly moody tone. Harrington delivered spoken-word interludes that ranged from political and spiritually-inspired, to a surreal dream sequence. The songs from the forthcoming Giddens album spanned folk-pop, to more austere and rustic sounds infused with rich accordion, piano, organ and electric piano from Francesco Turrisi, over a dynamic pulse from bassist Jason Cypher and drummer Attis Clopton. For the encore, they romped through a mighty take of the Staples Singers’ Freedom Highway, the title track to Giddens’ most recent album.

This residency was a real coup for Symphony Space. Booking here hasn’t been this good since talent buyer Laura Kaminsky left a few years ago. This fall has featured many artists who’ve never played the Upper West Side before, including some of the creme de la creme from the Barbes scene. One especially auspicious upcoming show is this Nov 29 at 7:30 PM with one of those groups, multi-instrumentalist Dennis Lichtman and playfully torchy singer/tapdancer Tamar Korn’s popular western swing band Brain Cloud. You can get in for $20 if you’re thirty or under, and there are all kinds of drink specials at the bar all night.

Single of the Day 11/5/18 – Country with a Conscience

Americana songwriter Hadley McCall Thackston’s Change (via Bandcamp) is probably the last thing you’d expect from a slow pedal steel-fueled country ballad: an understatedly withering commentary on cops shooting innocent black kids. From the Georgia native’s debut album.

Father John Misty’s First Live Album Is As Bleakly Funny As You Could Want

Said it before, time to say it again: more artists should make live albums. Studio, schmudio! If you’re Father John Misty, all you need is a mic, a guitar and a DI straight into the board. Rip the file to a thumb drive: instant album! Cost? Nothing. His vocals, guitar, uneasy tunes, gallows humor and withering cynicism are in first-class shape on his new album Live at Third Man Records, which strangely hasn’t hit Spotify yet, although it is available on vinyl. It’s today’s Halloween month installment

The first track is an aching take of I Love You Honeybear:

…on the Rorschach sheets where we make love…
You’re the one i want to go down with…
Unless we’re getting high on a mattress while the global market crashes

Meanwhile, the “misanthropes next door” are terrified that their neighbors are about to sire a Damien.

The surreal early Dylan influence – on the music and the lyrics, fortuituously, but not the vocals – really comes out in the solo acoustic take of I’m Writing a Novel. In the good Father’s alternate universe, Sartre and Heidegger join him in his trailer to share a pot of opium tea.

Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings is pretty much what any decent tunesmith might write after “Retracing the expanse of your American back with Adderall and weed in my veins,” as he relates to the nameless girl.

Chateau Lobby 4 (In C for 2 Virgins) is even more twistedly funny, newlyweds in a wee hours scenario: “So bourgeoisie to keep waiting, date for 21 years seems pretty civilian,” the guy tells his bride who “left early to go cheat your way through film school.”

This take of So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain is could be the great lost mid-70s co-write between Leonard Cohen and Neil Young. Everybody stays silent til the end through the endless deadpan litany of evils in Holy Shit:

Age-old gender roles
The golden era of tv
Eunuch sluts
Consumer slaves
A rose by another other name…

This intimate set closes with a concise version of Everyman Needs a Companion: Father John’s riffing on a bromance between Jesus and John the Baptist is pretty classic. The next Father John Misty show is in the UK at Portsmouth Guildhall in Portsmouth on Oct 28 at around 7:30 PM; cover is £29.25.