New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: pop music

No-No Boy Bring Their Fascinating, Harrowing, Catchy Songs of Japanese-American Incarceration to Lincoln Center

In one of the more ugly chapters in American history, beginning in 1942 almost 130,000 Japanese-Americans were seized without trial and subsequently imprisoned in a total of ten concentration camps, mostly in the western states. Most of those individuals were American citizens. Virtually all of them, instructed to leave their homes behind with only what they could carry with them, would spend the entirety of World War II imprisoned.

The “no-no boys,” as concentration camp staff first called them, refused to swear allegiance to the United States or serve in the military, which makes sense considering that virtually all of these men had family and relatives were were imprisoned along with them. With their debut album, 1942 – streaming at Bandcamp – elegantly tuneful rock band No-No Boy bring the chilling, powerfully relevant history of that era to life. They’re playing the atrium space at Lincoln Center on Broadway just north of 62nd St. this Thurs, Nov 15 at 7:30 PM. The show is free, but the earlier you get there the better because the venue frequently sells out.

Frontman/guitarist Julian Saporiti harmonizes with singer Erin Aoyama in the album’s shimmering, Elliott Smith-tinged opening track, Pacific Fog, Tessa Sacramone’s plaintive violin soaring overhead. Saporiti’s narrative allusively references John Okada’s hauting1957 novel, also titled No-No Boy.

This album goes beyond Japanese-American incarceration to focus on similarly relevant history. Case in point: Boat People, a gently sweeping, hypnotic ballad that juxtaposes the story of a mid-70s Vietnamese doctor who resettled in Montreal, alongside a more detailed, harrowing account of current-day refugees:

Fourteen hours by car, cargo trucks and cabs
Just to shake the cops, Mom had to stay back
A Chinese safe house and covered tracks…

The floor of the Pacific is littered with Asian bones.

The stories lighten but are no less minutely detailed in Han Shan & Helen Keller: Cold Mountain – an indelibly tense wintertime Boston college-crowd scenario – and then Disposable Youth, a wry afternoon party pickup scenario. By contrast, Lam Thi Dep – a John Lennon-esque anthem named after a female Viet Cong soldier captured in a famous Vietnam War photo – has the most intertwined of all the stories here. Saporiti’s savagely sardonic references reach beyond the fact that many first-generation Vietnamese-Americans voted Republican, to a hilarious account of knee-jerk political correctness in academia.

Instructions to All Persons refers to the FDR edict to round up Japanese-Americans on the west coast; Saporiti and Ayoyama sing in the voice of a survivor of the camps, reflecting on their prisoner friends’ quiet defiance and attempts to maintain some kind of normalcy there.

Saporiti draws his inspiration for Ogie/Naoko, a charming ukulele waltz, from Melody Miyamoto Walters’ book In Love and War: The World War II Love Letters of a Nisei Couple, adding sobering context to an otherwise schmaltzy story. The sweeping parlor pop ballad Heart Mountain – named for the camp where Ayoyama’s grandmother was imprisoned – is another waltz, Saporiti’s narrator hopeful that someday he can consummate a clandestine romance and rebuild his life as a college professor.

Two Candles In the Dark, arguably the album’s strongest song, is perhaps ironically its most Americana-flavored one. Saporiti gives voice to an irrepressible rulebreaker looking to get over despite her circumstances:

Pretty outlaw call a quarter past, light knuckles on a barrack door
She got a brother down in Topaz, I saw that name once in a jewelry store
Wind around past the skaters and pond, looking for a cut in the wire
She’s got a key to the cellar door,
I don’t ask questions, man, just stand there inspired

Dragon Park, the album’s most stoically angry song, traces images from Saporiti’s own Tennessee childhood as a Vietnamese-American fighting off racist idiots:

I know that Southern Stare
Not just back home but everywhere

The album ends with its most Asian folk-inflected tune, Little Saigon, lost in a reverie of a place to indulge in a heritage including but not limited to Vietnamese psychedelic rock and the dan bau, a magical, warp-toned stringed instrument. At its best, Saporiti’s tunesmithing ranks with any of the real visionaries of this era: Elvis Costello, Hannah Fairchild and Rachelle Garniez. You’ll see on the best albums of 2018 page at the end of the year.

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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.

Eclectic, Gorgeously Lynchian Retro Americana From Peggy James

The desolation and alienation is relentless throughout Milwaukee Americana singer Peggy James’ latest album Nothing in Between, streaming at Spotify. What’s most striking is how original it is: while there are elements of artsy late 70s pop, 80s goth, 60s and 70s country, James’ style is completely her own. Milwaukee rock has been vastly underrated over the years, and this album puts James in the vanguard of great artists from the Shivvers to the BoDeans. Her startlingly direct, plainspoken delivery and lyrics mingle with a meticulously orchestrated, blue velvet atmosphere that’s impossible to turn away from: Gary Tannin’s production is genius. It’s today’s installment for Halloween month.

Swirly organ along with Jim Eannelli’s splashes of jangly guitar fuel the record’s epic, opening Lynchian ballad, We Had to Meet. James’ down-to-earth, unadorned delivery is multitracked for maximum intensity in places here. New York noir Americana goddess Jessie Kilguss comes to mind.

The intensity rises higher over Eannelli’s clanging, catchy chromatic in X-Files, a sultry mashup of Vegas noir and 80s new wave: “ Board up your fences or get blown apart,” James warns.

An Hour With You is retro 70s orchestrated Nashville gothic: “Nobody’s girl, I finally met nobody’s boy,” James muses against a sad, sparkly piano-and-strings backdrop. She takes the ambience ten years forward into the 80s with the pulsing, gothic lushness of Lover. The next cut, the album’s title track would be a straightforward 70s country-pop ballad except for the piano, which falls to the haunting, minimalist gothic side.

Muscle Man may be a silly Blondie-style attempt at reggae, but you can still see the trouble coming a mile away. Then the band take a detour into Tex-Mex flavored C&W with Gotta Have a Love “There’s only one way down this road, as straight as hell,” James warns.

In One Ear and Out the Other is a funny country cautionary tale in an early Dolly Parton vein. “Somehow my presence alarms you… a ghost of a very close friend,” James Ghost laments stoically in Ghost, a classic Nashville ballad straight out of the Kitty Wells book.

Sound of Your Wheels is a classic Lynchian theme, a younger woman pining for the older guy whose private plane is her only source of excitement in a dead-end town. Fallen Snow has lushness and twinkle beyond its baseboard-heat cocoon, piano and guitar delivering carefree ripple despite James’ persistent unease. The album’s final cut is the reverbtoned, tremoloing Wish You Well, a desolate goodbye ballad and vehicle for James’ most brooding vocals here. Let’s hope we hear more from this hauntingly individualistic, unpretentious, deceptively deep purist American tunesmith.

Withering Arabic Political Anthems and Swinging Noir Sounds at Youssra El Hawary’s US Debut at Lincoln Center

“We want our programming to be reflective of this city,” Lincoln Center’s Jordana Leigh said succinctly, introducing firebrand Egyptian singer/accordionist Youssra El Hawary this past evening for her North American debut. “She had an amazing song that went viral, part of the Arab Spring movement.” El Hawary has come a long way since her scathingly antiauthoritarian youtube hit The Wall six years ago.

She channels an angst and a noir psychedelic sensibility very similar to the French band Juniore. Yet she hasn’t lost any of the witheringly cynical political edge that brought her worldwide acclaim. ‘I can’t describe how emotional I am today,” she told the crowd, confiding that after her first show in Egypt, she thought she’d resign herself to going home and giving up on her dream. Sometimes good things happen to people who deserve them.

The blend of El Hawary’s chromatic accordion, Shadi El Hosseiny’s stalker electric piano and Sedky Sakhr’s wood flute in the night’s opening number, Kollo Yehoun, blended for an absolutely lurid mashup of late 60s French psychedelic pop and Egyptian classical songcraft. Tareq Abdelkawi’s buzuq added uneasily rippling intensity beneath El Hawary’s unselfconscious, airy Arabic-language vocals. She draws you in, whether understatedly moody or cool and collected.

Sakhr switched to harmonica for the second tune of the night, La Tesma Kalami, an anthemically strutting, shadowy Pigalle pop tune driven by Yamen El Gamal’s punchy bass and Loai (Luka) Gamal’s understaged drums. The anthemic, cabaret-tinged Kashkouli, as El Hawary described it, tackled issues of overthinking and fearlessness, Abdelkawi doubling the bandleader’s plaintive lead lines.

El Hawary rose gently out of El Hosseiny’s creepy, twinkling music box-like intro to a swaying, minor-key midtempo number, Mana Washi, Sakhr’s flute wafting and then bouncing as the band took the song further into straight-up rock territory. The title track to her album – which she translated as “We all go to sleep at night, wake up and forget” – swung through unexpected tempo shifts, torchy cabaret infused with Levantine energy. “That’s what we’ve been doing the last six, seven years,” she deadpanned.

Sakhr cynically went to great lengths to describe the noxiousness of Cairo bus exhaust in the city’s notoriously tangled rush hour traffic. Songs about things that literally smell like shit seldom have such a carefree bounce as Autobees, the jubilantly sarcastic number the band followed with. El Hawary didn’t hesitate to make the connection between the Cairo wall in her big hit and Trump’s proposed version on the Mexican border, which drew roars of applause as the band vamped and swung behind her: cosmopolitan elegance, pure punk rock energy.

Abdelkawi’s spirals and flickers lowlit the romantic angst of Baheb Aghib; then El Hawary brought the lights down with the bittersweetly lilting vocal-and-piano lament Bil Mazboot. The band went deep into swaying, crescendoing Cairo cafe land with the instrumental Sallem Zal Beit, a showcase for El Hawary’s accordion chops.

They reinvented the new wave-era French pop hit Maron Glacee with a droll calypso feel, then flipped the script with Jessica, a vindictively swinging kiss-off singalong directed at the ditzy French girl who stole her boyfriend. Despite differences in the band about how to translate Reehet El Fora, everybody agreed it was about the kind of sinking feeling that comes with having a Jessica around. With its neoromantic swirl, it was one of the night’s most stinging moments.

The band built a brooding, foggy behind her and then leapt into Hatoo Kteer, El Hawary skewering the Egyptian habit of stockpiling in case of crisis. She closed with Akbar Men El Gouda, the night’s most rock-oriented tune, then encored with a moodily catchy film theme that she credited as being a pivotal post-Wall moment in her career. 

You’ll see this show on the best concerts of 2018 page here at the end of the year. Lincoln Center’s mostly-weekly series of free concerts at the atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. continues next Thurs, Oct 11 at 7:30 PM with a rare New York performance of South African jazz featuring reedman McCoy Mrubata and pianist Paul Hanmer. Get there early if you want a seat. 

Irresistibly Quirky Ukulele Fun at the Jalopy

Ukulele bands are supposed to be funny. Saturday night at the Jalopy, the twinbill of Ukulele Scramble and the Ukuladies kept everybody chuckling and frequently laughing out loud for the better part of two hours. Name a comedian who can pull that off.

True to their name, Ukulele Scramble play a lot of mashups. When they’re not twisting styles from across the decades – and centuries – into knots, they’re playing ridiculous segues, and repertoire that was definitely never meant to be played on the uke. When’s the last time you heard ukulele versions of classical compositions by Charles Ives or Amy Beach? Ukulele Scramble did both, and well!

Six years ago, Robin Hoffman described herself as an aspiring uke player. Her main gig was visual art: her two coffee table books feature the illustrations she drew as a regular in the audience at the Jalopy. Last night, on the same stage where she captured a generation of New York Americana music talent in all sorts of revealing, kinetic poses, she played Bach. That was midway through a spiky, sparkling cover of Pink Floyd’s uneasy psychedelic pop classic See Emily Play.

Her sparring partner in this duo project, Richard Perlmutter sparred back and forth with the audience in an endless “name that tune” game when he wasn’t spinning precise spirals and nimbly plucking out complex classical chords. At least as complex as you can play on a uke, anyway

Hoffman sang the night’s funniest song, a version of the Brahms lullaby with new lyrics about being kept awake by a fly in the bedroom – the joke is too good to give away. They did Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue, which more than one uke player in the crowd agreed was the first tune that pretty much everybody learns to play on it. Throughout the set, Perlmutter’s flinty vocals contrasted with Hoffman’s cool torch-singer delivery throughout all sorts of clever syncopation and intricate harmony. The most dizzyingly impressive number was a tonguetwisting can-can remake of piece by Offenbach.

The Ukuladies used to be much more ubiquitous than they are now: ten years ago, you’d find them at Rodeo Bar one day, then at Barbes or Joe’s Pub the next. So it’s no surprise that their irrepressible, theatrical shtick was more about breaking the fourth wall this time out – and maybe especially fresh because of it. Tapdancer Heather Warfel a.k.a. Cousin Bunnie flashed a series of charmingly lo-fi props while uke players Katie Down and Mary Myers a.k.a. Genevieve and her Aunt Mary harmonized together through a mix of Andrews Sisters girl-group jazz numbers and sardonic originals.

Their funniest of those was Put Another Nickel in the Nickelodeon, interspersed with innumerable snippets of cheesy pop songs. They also treated the crowd to Asshole in a SUV – a classic Brooklyn song if there ever was one – and a tongue-in-cheek one about getting gaymarried that managed to poke fun at both those who do and those who object to it. Singing saw player Philippa Thompson a.k.a.  Jimmy Lu – who’d just played a set with another excellent Jalopy act, M Shanghai String Band at the Brooklyn Americana Festival earlier in the day – led the quartet through a witheringly cynical bossa nova parody. Warfel got a turn on lead vocals in a number where it was revealed that the Ukuladies aren’t really a family band: they’re her backing unit.

Ukulele Scramble, based in Massachusetts, are playing Sept 27 at 6:30 PM at the Merriam-Gilbert Public Library, 3 W Main St in West Brookfield, MA.

Still Corners Bring the Noir to Bushwick This Week

London band Still Corners play deliciously Lynchian cinematic rock with frequent detours into new wave. Their album Slow Air is streaming at Bandcamp, and they’ve got a show this Sept 18 at 10 PM at Elsewhere. Cover is $18.

The album is a diptych of sorts: they stack the noir stuff deep early and then lighten up as the 80s filter in with a glossy sheen. The aptly tilted opening track, In the Middle of the Night sounds like the Lost Patrol doing trip-hop, Greg Hughes’ catchy rainy-day guitars awash in lush noir soundtrack synth. The Message has lingering spaghetti western licks over a tight backbeat, singer Tessa Murray’s misty voice channeling lost-highway desolation.

Julee Cruise girl-down-the-well stoicism and longing permeates Sad Movies, with more incisive/lush contrast between starry guitar and orchestral sweep. The band go back to catchy, vampy Twin Peaks ambience in Welcome to Slow Air, surreal tropical touches contrasting with neoromantic elegance.

Black Lagoon is hardly the monster movie theme you might imagine; instead, it’s a sleek, pulsing new wave pop tune with an unexpectedly desperate undercurrent. Dreamlands, the least troubled track here, has echoey Cure guitar front and center.

Whisper is the album’s most minimalist cut, the synthesizers’ growling lows and ethereal highs sandwiching spare, watery gothic guitar and bass riffage. Fade Out has wry phony low-brass synth over a steady backbeat. The Photograph is totally 80s – like, totally – a mashup of ABC and early U2 that works infinitely better than that bastardly pairing. The album’s final cut is the loopy Long Goodbyes, with its juxtaposition of simple, keening guitar and looming Angelo Badalamenti synth.

Every note serves a purpose here. Nothing is wasted in setting a mood and maintaining it, especially when the game plan is mystery.

A Strange, Innovative New Mixtape Album and a Williamsburg Show From Agnes Obel

Of the 21 tracks on Agnes Obel’s latest aptly titled album Late Night Tales – streaming at Bandcamp – only four of the songs are hers. But it’s not a covers album – it’s a cleverly assembled mixtape, often a very good one. Considering how many decades’ worth of material across about as wide a stylistic swath as you could imagine are represented here, segues aren’t the point. Obviously, the goth-tinged Danish multi-keyboardist/singer is going to be playing her own material at her gig tomorrow night, Sept 15 at Warsaw. Showtime is 8 PM; general admission is $20. If you’re going, be aware that there is no G train this weekend: the venue is about a five minute walk from the south exit (i.e. the one without the lines) at the Bedford Ave. L station.

To open the album, the shifting ominousness of Henry Mancini’s Evil Theme segues into the creepy arpeggios and vocalese of Moonbird, a 1971 instrumental by the Roger Webb Sound. Campy faux-tropicalia by Eden Ahbez quickly breaks the mood; the grim Lee Hazelwood western gothic track after that also hasn’t aged well.

Jamaican singer Nora Dean’s distantly menacing dub plate Ay Ay Ay Ay (Angle-Lala) is a welcome return to the darkness, echoed a bit later by Lena Platonos’ Bloody Shadows from a Distance. A loopily cinematic bass-and-narration miniature by Yello quickly gives way to the surreal 196os Brazilian renaissance choral psych-pop of Aleluia, by Quarteto Em Cy with the Tamba Trio

Ray Davies’ 2015 cover of his ex Chrissie Hynde’s I Go to Sleep is almost as surreal, awash in an echoey chamber pop arrangement. The lingering unease of the fifth movement from Alfred Schnittke’s Piano Quintet, (uncredited, but the piano sounds like Obel) connects to her first original here, Stretch Your Eyes and its rainy-day Dead Can Dance ambience. 

An otherworldly folk melody sung by the Bulgarian State Radio & Television Female Choir bridges to Obel’s second number, Glemmer Du and its twistedly twinkling music-box piano. Her third composition, Bee Dance is a ghostly waltzing instrumental for strings and piano.

The stark freak-folk of Sibylle Baier’s The End, from 2006, leads into Michelle Gurevich’s similarly spare, sarcastic Party Girl, from a year later. The mix shifts back to noir with Can’s wintry, swooshy instrumental Oscura Primavera, followed by indie classical composer David Lang’s minimalist choral fugue I Lie, performed by the Torino Vocalensemble (uncredited). Arguably the highlight of the whole mix is a live 1964 concert recording of Nina Simone singing an a-cappella version of her excoriating, ferociously relevant ode to black female beauty, Images. Obel’s emphatic, minimalist dreamscape setting of Inger Christensen’s Poem About Death concludes this strange and unsettling mix.

One minor issue with the album is that the times listed for every single track on the Bandcamp page are completely wrong. Don’t be surprised when what’s ostensibly six minutes worth of Obel suddenly cuts off at the 1:45 mark.

A Rapturous, Relevant, Thoughtful Show by Eclectic Violinist Concetta Abbate

Saturday night at Pete’s Candy Store, violinist Concetta Abbate held the crowd silent through a beguiling, sometimes entrancing, sometimes sprightly set of original vocal and instrumental numbers, in a duo set with similarly nuanced drummer Ben Engel. Abbate is your typical in-demand string player: one day she’ll be playing Haydn, the next psychedelic Mayan folk with Inti & the Moon, or with Rose Thomas Bannister’s haunting art-rock band.

Abbate’s own material defies categorization. It’s elegant, minutely detailed and rarely ends up where it began. Shifting between pensive ambience, graceful baroque-tinged riffs and gently churning pizzicato phrases, she made all those stylistic leaps and bounds look easy. Most of her songs are under three minutes long, so she came up with several diptychs and triptychs.

A mini-suite from her most recent studio album Falling in Time gave her a launching pad from which to sail to the top of her vocal register – for someone who sings as calmly and often quietly as she does, she has enormous range. The best of the originals might have been a lilting, rather anthemic new one, contemplating how the Brooklyn-Queens border is a graveyard – literally – and allusively referencing the blitzkrieg of gentrification that’s extending that situation, metaphorically at least.

The lone cover in her set was a muted, straightforward chamber-pop arrangement of the Smiths’  There Is a Light That Never Goes Out, arguably even more cruelly bittersweet than the original since Abbate didn’t go over the top with her vocals, letting the lyrics’ angst and longing speak for themselves. Engel’s masterfully suspenseful drumming grounded the music’s upper registers while adding considerable suspense. Whether playing with brushes or mallets, from rustling whispers to spot-on imitations of Arabic drums – boomy daf and gently popping dumbek – he was always in one good place or another.

Abbate’s next gig is at the Park Church Coop at 129 Russell St. in Greenpoint on Sept 9 at 2 PM, joining an chamber ensemble for a killer program of her own work plus material by women composers Missy Mazzoli, Whitney George, Anna Bon and Kate Amrine. There’s no G train this weekend, so you’ll have to take the L to Bedford and walk. Cover is $10 and includes snacks. Abbate is also playing solo at the small room at the Rockwood on Sept 30 at 3 (three) PM.

A Promising, Characteristically Eclectic Start to This Year’s Bryant Park Accordion Festival

This year’s Bryant Park Accordion Festival runs through Sept 14 and promises to be as rapturously fun as last year’s was. On Wednesday evenings starting at 5:30 PM, a rotating cast of accordionists play half-hour sets of an amazingly eclectic range of music. This year there are five sets happening simultaneously, which created some dissonance on opening night when one group was going full steam while their neighbor played a quiet ballad. But the music was sublime.

For a connoisseur of accordion music – and who wouldn’t want to be one, right? – it’s always a triage. Forro or klezmer? Irish folk-punk or cumbia? The advantage of staggered sets is that you get multiple chances to see your favorite player or style of music. This week it was easy to choose a set by the brilliant and erudite Christina Crowder to begin the evening. Most of her numbers were minor-key Jewish wedding tunes, including a bouncy one about giving away the family’s youngest daughter, along with a mysterious, enveloping theme typically played early in the day for relatives of the betrothed. She romped through a jaunty bulgar and another, more somber tune, both of which contained the Twilight Zone riff. Late in the set, she treated the crowd to a Moldavian tune whose title translates roughly as “Freestyle Over This Groove.” Crowder didn’t rap; instead, she built an ambience that was as kinetic as it was hypnotic.

After that, it was time to head to the southeastern corner of the park for an even livelier set of oldschool cumbia and vallenato – “Colombian country music,” as accordionist Foncho Castellar termed it. Backed by a couple of percussionists, he played button accordion. The trio romped through some very brisk cumbias before the even more rustic stuff about peasants in the big city, or way out on the frontera, dancing, partying and chasing women.

After that, Susan Hwang – half of haunting literary art-rock duo Lusterlit – broke out her accordion for a deviously fun set. Backed by a djembe player, she opened with a coyly exasperated, new wave-flavored original, from her days with charming late zeros/early teens trio the Debutante Hour, concerning New York parking. Her funniest cover was a remake of the Willie Dixon/Muddy Waters blues classic, which she titled Hoochie Koochie Woman. Another fun one was an original from her lit-rock collective the Bushwick Book Club, a thoughtful, quirky bounce told from the point of view of physicist Richard Feynman.

Like Hwang, Dolunay frontwoman Jenny Luna is best known as a singer and percussionist. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to call her one of New York’s – and arguably the world’s – most riveting, shattering vocalists. She’s also a first-rate Balkan and Middle Eastern drummer. As it turns out, she’s a competent accordionist as well. Much as she got plenty of brooding, sometimes haunting atmospherics and chromatics wafting from her reeds, it was her voice that held the crowd spellbound,. She began with a moody tone  poem of sorts, then a couple of Rumeli (Balkan Turkish) laments that gave her a chance to air out both her soaring highs and haunting low register. She wound up the set with a jaunty if hardly blithe singalong, in Turkish – the chorus translated roughly as variations on “be my habibi.”

Next week’s installment of the festival, at 5:30 PM on Aug 22, features a similarly diverse lineup including but not limited to gothic Americana songwriter Sam Reider; the torchy, swinging Erica Mancini; edgy, avant garde-influenced chamber pop singer Mary Spencer Knapp; Argentine tango duo Tinta Roja and Mexican norteño crew Toro de la Sierra.

Mavis Staples Throws a Party For Our Right to Fight at Lincoln Center

By the time Mavis Staples had launched into her second catchy, singalong soul groove at Lincoln Center Out of Doors last night, she was already referencing economic deprivation and political exploitation. At least half of the crowd were on their feet, dancing and swaying. Her voice has weathered over the years, but her message and presence have not. The heir to a seven-decade, politically fearless soul music legacy is as relevant today as she was in 1962, when she marched throughout the South with the family patriarch, Pops Staples, and put her life on the line.

One hand, she’s a friendly, down-to-earth Chicagoan. On the other, she carries herself with the gravitas but also the optimism of someone who won a lot of battles back in the day and remains an inspiration to this generation’s freedom fighters. “We live in troubled times,” she mused soberly. But then she grinned. “I’m thinking about going down to Washington,” she announced, to wild applause. “But I’m not going alone. I’m not stupid. I’m bringng my posse!”

“But they’d just throw me out. ‘You’re not from here, you’re from Chicago, go home.’” No doubt that was the reaction of the rednecks who jailed her alongside Martin Luther King, and her dad, who wrote the gospel call-and-response of Freedom Highway for those marchers. Staples sang that one midway through the set, backed by a tight, terse five-piece band with guitar, bass, drums and two passionate, purposeful harmony singers.

They opened with Are You Ready and its “come go with me” mantra, which came across as more of a challenge to join forces against oppression than simply with the rest of the choir. She evoked a similar call-and-response a couple of songs later: “Don’t rock the boat – who told you that?” The line that drew the most thunderous roar from the crowd was when the gentleman on harmony vocals sang, “Take the sheet off your face, boy, it’s a new day now.”

The rest of the set ranged from comfortable 1960s-style two-chord soul/gospel jams, to more energetic funk and some nifty, shifting tempos in a couple of tunes. Along the way, Staples’ alluded to more contemporary issues including but not limited to the blitzkrieg of gentrification and the war on immigrants. At the end of the set, they finally vamped their way through a joyous singalong of the Staples Singers’ 1971 hit I’ll Take You There.

Throughout the show, the band were tight and purposeful, with a couple of surprisingly volcanic, noisy guitar solos from Telecaster player Rick Holstrom, a little snap and pop from Jeff Turmes’ bass toward the end and some acerbic cameos from both harmony vocalists.

Joe Henry opened. He’s a very serious guy, choosing his words carefully as he addressed the crowd. “Every song I write is part Amazing Grace and part Let’s Get It On,” he explained. That description held up throughout his roughly forty-five minutes onstage: he’s the missing link between Leonard Cohen and Wilco. Another reference point was Bob Dylan’s It’s All Over Now Baby Blue, which kept popping up tunewise throughout the show. Playing acoustic guitar, using both standard and open tunings, he led his six-piece band through a breezy set of slow-to-midtempo parlor Americana ballads. It would have been a treat to be able to hear the great Cindy Cashdollar’s diverse lapsteel textures, which more often than not were drowned out by Levon Henry’s sax. More often than not it takes somebody the caliber of Bob Wills to get horns and country-influenced songwriting to work together. 

Lincoln Center Out of Doors winds up tonight, Aug 12 at 7 PM with another collaboration with the Americana Music Association, featuring sets by guitarslinger Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real and country-soul chanteuse Margo Price.