New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: soul music

Claudia Acuña’s Rich, Lyrical New Album Turns Out to be Worth a Decade-Long Wait

Claudia Acuña is revered in the New York jazz scene as one of the most unselfconsciously soulful and mutable singers around. She bridges the gap between North American jazz and South American balladry better than just about anyone, equally skilled in both English and Spanish. But she’s also a hell of a songwriter. Her new album Turning Pages – which hasn’t hit her music page yet – features seven originals along with a standard and another by her mentor, Abbey Lincoln. It’s Acuña’s first album as a bandleader in ten years, and it was worth the wait. She’s playing a four-night stand at Birdland to celebrate this Feb 6-9, with sets at 7 and 10; you can get in for as little as $20.

Lowlit by Pablo Vergara’s broodingly gleaming piano, Yayo Serka’s elegant drumming and Carlos Henderson’s terse bass, the album’s opening track, Aguita de Corazon is a masterpiece. Acuña’s voice is cool and nuanced yet plaintive, working the increasingly haunting twists of the lyrics with a subtle wallop. On harmonica, guest Gregoire Maret plays the solo of his life, a comet trail of angst to mirror the vocals.

Then Acuña flips the script with Hey, an insistent empowerment ballad that mashes up 70s clave soul with trippy, stainless-countertopped 90s acid jazz, guitarist Juancho Herrera adding an incisive, funky edge. Her luxuriantly bittersweet remake of Jimmy Van Heusen’s But Beautiful is spacious yet propulsive, driven by Serka’s syncopated, clickety-clack snare work. Henderson’s sinuous soloing and Herrera’s resonant jangle.

Acuña brings back the darkly pensive atmosphere in Tres Deseos (Three Wishes), awash in Serka’s waves of cymbals and malletwork and Vergara’s translucent, neoromantic phrasing. The moon imagery – a persistent trope here – in the next track, Futuro is more carefree, lit up by Herrera’s incisive flares over a pulsing quasi-reggae groove. His Arabic-tinged solo is just short of savage, and the album’s instrumental high point.

Lincoln’s Bird Alone has all kinds of neat, unexpected touches: Vergara’s coy chirps, Herrera’s spare, plaintive but powerfully present chords and a world-weary vocal that echoes both the writer and Sarah Vaughan. Silencio is anything but quiet, Herrera’s gritty flamenco-inflected lines driving the song to a harrowing peak with Acuña’s vocalese paired against Vergara’s ominously glittering rivulets.

Home, a duet with Herrera, is a gospel tune with some unexpected, sunny slide guitar. Those gospel echoes remain in thee album’s closing cut, Tu Sonrisa (Your Smile), its Mexican ranchera-inflected sway the closest thing to carefree here. It’s early in the year, but this is the best album of 2019 so far. 

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Epic, Fearless, Funky Orchestral Jamband Burnt Sugar Celebrate Twenty Years at Lincoln Center

Burnt Sugar hold the record for the most performances at Lincoln Center’s atrium space, impresario Jordana Leigh enthused moments before the mammoth ensemble took the stage there this past evening in celebration of their twentieth anniversary. “I can’t think of a band that more encapsulates New York…and the talent, and the energy, and style!”

“If you’ve seen us before, you know that we alternate between the raw and the cooked,” founder and conductor Greg Tate grinned, referring to the band’s penchant for swinging wildly between reinventions of others’ music and their own serpentine, tectonic, often thunderous mass improvisations. If memory serves right – there were a LOT of people onstage – this version of the collective had four singers, four guitarists, a horn section, rhythm section and keys in addition to plenty of beats and maybe atmospherics stashed away in somebody’s pedal.

From behind his Strat, Tate directed rises, falls, signaled for solos and for specific groups of instrumentation to punch in or out, in the same vein as the inventor of “conduction,” the late, great Butch Morris. The evening’s sprawling opening instrumental rose and fell with all sorts of sudden shifts, punchy and lyrical solos from JS Williams’ trumpet, V. Jeffrey Smith’s alto sax and Paula Henderson’s smoky baritone sax.

With former member Rene Akan’s Wretched of the Earth, Page 88, they made squalling, careening, Rage Against the Machine metalfunk out of a grim account of a city under fire in Frantz Fanon’s classic antiglobalist manifesto. This may be the performance where Burnt Sugar set another record, as the loudest band ever to play this space, a possibility reinforced by another Akan number that sounded in places as if the Bad Brains had cloned themselves.

“Rome burned while freedom lurked, masquerade and misdirection, incantations hide intentions,” singer Lisala Beatty mused over Leon Gruenbaum’s percolating, slinky Fender Rhodes groove a bit later in the set. It was akin to symphonic Gil Scott-Heron: “Young, black and vague, now you gotta ride the future shock wave.”

Smith’s disarmingly beautiful sax swirls spun over a slow, hypnotic beat as a wryly funny duet between Beatty and fellow vocalist Mikell Banks got underway – it could have been a joint homage to Sun Ra and Prince. The vocal version of Chains and Water – the opening track on Burnt Sugar’s 2009 album Making Love to the Dark Ages – had a subdued, hypnotic sway that masked its ferocious look back at the legacy of the Middle Passage, at least until the guitars flared up. They took it down with a rather chilling chain gang-style contrapuntal vocal outro.

Smith and bassist Jared Nickerson dedicated Naomi, a tender yet lively duet, to Nickerson’s aunt. It brought to mind Kenny Garrett back in the 90s in a particularly sunny mood. Then the group completely flipped the script with Ride Ride Ride – complete with sarcastically loopy faux-anthemic organ and a singalong chorus that went “Ride ride ride, everybody gonna get gentrified.” Henderson’s snarky, honking, repetitive solo offered momentary relief from a scenario where everyone’s “Homeless and boneless, your judgment an eternal curse.”

Tate might laugh if he heard this, but at this show he was the best guitarist onstage, plucking out sparse, enigmatic chords that resonated far more than any Eddie Van Halen squeals and divebomb effects could have. The group wound out the night with a nebulous backbeat-driven examination of racism in the early Bush/Cheney war era, an oldschool disco tune, and a gritty, atmospheric, Nina Simone-tinged ballad sung with considerable gravitas by Meah Pace.

Burnt Sugar are at the Brooklyn Museum on Jan 31 at 7 PM; cover is $16 and includes museum admission. The next show at the atrium space at Lincoln Center on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is Jan 17 at 7:30 PM with the amazing and only slightly less epic Black String, who blend stormy art-rock, mesmerizing Korean traditional music, opera and hip-hop. Get there early if you’re going.

A Long Awaited New Album and a Long Harlem Residency From the Unpredictable, Psychedelic Academy Blues Project

The Academy Blues Project are New York’s hardest working psychedelic band. They’ve got a gig somewhere just about every week. As a result, their sprawling epics and slinky soul jams have become incredibly tight: it’s rare to see a group with this kind of chemistry. And they finally have a long-awaited new ep, Let’s Brunch Vol. 1- the first in a series of three – streaming at their music page. The group like residencies: this month and next, beginning on Jan 7, they’re playing Monday nights at 8 PM at a favorite haunt, the comfortably scruffy Shrine in Harlem.

The first of the new tracks is a tasty instrumental, 1001, which sounds like a heavier Chicha Libre covering the Meters. Ben Easton’s carnivalesque organ gives it the Peruvian psych flavor, echoed by frontman/guitarist Mark Levy over a tight, trebly strut from bassist Trevor Brown and drummer Jim Bloom.

The album’s second cut is Boo, a briskly shuffling, 60s Motown-tinged soul tune. Easton’s prickling clavinova adds wry Sly Stone flavor. just when Levy’s chicken-scratch guitar solo really gets cooking, they fade it down.

Pyewacker, another instrumental, is a surreal mix of proto-metal and heavy soul – it could be early Santana fronting Rare Earth, Levy’s spiky guitar contrasting with Easton’s smoky organ. The final cut, Into the Blue, has a gorgeously wistful guitar-and-organ intro straight out of the Nektar playbook, then straightens out into vampy post Blonde on Blonde rock, a broodingly nocturnal New Jersey scenario. It’s a tantalizing moment of clarity, as Levy puts it, amid the group’s innumerable stylistic shifts. You can bet this blog will be in the house for at least one of the Shrine gigs.

Slinky, Eclectic, Unpredictable Psychedelic Grooves from International Orange

International Orange are one of the most distinctive, unpredictable instrumental jambands out there. In a single, expansive tune, they can shift between Afrobeat, oldschool soul, psychedelic funk, gutbucket organ grooves and Bahian-flavored beats. Pretty much everybody in the band writes.Their latest album A Man and His Dog (For Gaku)  is streaming at Bandcamp. They’re playing at 11 PM on Dec 30 at Offside Tavern at 137 W 14th St,

While their music is hardly melancholy, there is a sad backstory. The group lost their bassist, Gaku Takanashi, who appears on half the tracks here: this would be his final recording. Guitarist David Phelps’ tune Keep the Blue Side Up opens it with an upbeat, catchy soukous guitar flair, then Dan Stein’s organ solo takes the music toward gutbucket organ groove before Phelps returns to with a metal attack. Meanwhile, the rhythm section – Takanashi’s bass and Todd Isler’s drums – follow a carefree tropical shuffle. 

Olinda – by Isler and Fender Rhodes player Adam Morrison – is a starry boudoir soul jam with more than a hint of roots reggae, Phelps’ slide guitar adding unexpected Hawaiian flavor as Leo Traversa’s hammer-on bass riffs weave through the mix. How I learned Not To Worry, another Phelps tune, is a syncopated oldschool soul song without words, with more of that keening slide guitar and Takanashi’s bass percolating over the organ.

The lively Strut Orange brings to mind steel guitarist Raphael McGregor’s adventures in instrumental southern rock. Freight Liner, also by Phelps, is a more tipetoeing, New Orleans-flavored strut, Phelps’ exchanges with Morrison’s organ bringing to mind vintage 60s Mulatu Astatke Ethiopian funk before the guitar goes in a shreddier direction.

Maracuja, an Isler tune, has a catchy oldschool soul melody over an animatedly shuffling maracatu groove, Phelps’ hard funk lines and detours toward metal flaring overhead. Sookie’s Rhumba, by Traversa, keeps the soul ambience simmering as Isler flits along on his rims, Phelps adding warm, Smokey Robinson-esque lines until the bass signals a shift into bubbling West African territory. 

Their take of Pat Metheny’s Sirabhorn is part twinkling Hawaiian seascape, part Carnaval them, another showcase for Phelps’ sunbaked slide work. His original The Penguin comes across as Peter Gabriel-era Genesis motoring through an oldschool soul groove with unexpected, tongue-in-cheek success: imagine a more original, focused Dopapod.

First Principle, by Stein is a dub reggae jam as organist Brian Charette might do it, with a little Beatlesque psychedelia thrown into the mix. Phelps’ solo guitar tribute to his bassist friend Gaku, A Man And His Dog closes the album on a steady, warmly reflective, pastoral note.

Purist, Potently Lyrical Janglerock, Americana, Powerpop and Soul From the Bastards of Fine Arts

For the past several months, the Bastards of Fine Arts have been working up a formidable body of catchy, anthemic, purist rock songs via a mostly-monthly residency at 11th Street Bar. The project took shape as a challenge of sorts, songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Matt Keating and his lead guitarist co-conspirator Steve Mayone hell-bent on writing a new song every week. Their project caught on with social media and went viral. Fast forward to 2018, they’ve got a full band now (Jason Mercer on bass and Greg Wieczorek on drums) and a catalog as vast as a band who’ve been around for five times as long. Which means they can mine it for the real gems.

Playing as a duo at the American Folk Art Museum in May of last year, they were at the point where they were working every style they knew (and they know a lot!). Sam Cooke ballad? Check. Lou Reed (a guy Keating is unsurpassed at imitating)? Doublecheck. Honkytonk anthem, Wallflowers janglerock, wistful Americana waltz? Triplecheck.

A year later at an early 11th Street gig, they’d pulled the band together and had built up a set that transcended its origins. They opened with their catchiest number, the gorgeously bittersweet I’ll Take the Fall, Keating both self-effacing and witheringly cynical at the same time. Another even more vindictive number traced the story of an ex that the song’s narrator spies out on a date with some dude. On the way out of the bar, she drops her coat; the dude picks it up for her. Keating’s narrator would have left it there.

Because part of the project is “what style CAN’T we do,” there are plenty of jokes to go around, some more inside than others. Switching to piano, Keating turned a Mayone ballad into a gospel tune; Mayone added some sardonic metal licks to a Keating soul number. They worked a bossa groove, Mercer spiraling all over the fretboard during a more recent number, Walk in the Park, a rare instance of a song of theirs which doesn’t seem to have a cynical undercurrent.

In a very subtle Elvis Costello vein, they vamped along on a bouncy soul-blues tune for a good three minutes, at least, without changing chords once. At the end of the set, they brought up Keating’s daughter Greta, who flashed some incisive chops on Strat as well as a similarly edgy lyricism and soaring vocals. Most children of great musicians don’t go into music for obvious reasons; Greta Keating, like Amy Allison and Jakob Dylan, is every bit as formidable as her dad was when he was in his early twenties. Here’s hoping she sticks with it. The Bastards of Fine Arts are back at 11th Street Bar on Dec 18 at 9 PM.

A Gorgeously Bittersweet Farewell to Manhattan from Art-Rock Maven Spottiswoode

The Manhattan that Jonathan Spottiswoode came up in back in the 1990s was far from perfect. The seeds of the city’s death by real estate speculation had already been sown. But there were a lot more places where an often witheringly lyrical, lavishly orchestrated rock band could play then than there are now. Spottiswoode & His Enemies may have sold out the release show for their latest magnum opus, Lost in the City, at Joe’s Pub on the 30th, but twenty-one years ago they could have done the same at a much bigger venue. So it’s fitting that the album – streaming at Bandcamp – is an elegaic salute to a vanished, urbane metropolis, and that Spottiswoode has since relocated to his London birthplace. At least we’ll always have the memories – and this epic.

While Spottiswoode is no stranger to largescale creations, this is arguably his most lavish release. He’s always had a knack for latin sounds, and he dives more deeply into the Spanish Caribbean here than ever before. The opening track is Hoboken. It’s dead ringer for a brooding Pink Floyd ballad: Spottiswoode’s voice has weathered to resemble Roger Waters more and more over the yearas, and Tony Lauria’s gospel-tinged piano completes the picture. The migthy Springsteenian bridge is spot-on, right down to Laura’s Roy Bittan impersonation. “I tried it like all the rest, not what I dreamed I guess, but I did ok,” Spottiswoode muses.

With its bluesy minor-key swing spiced with horn harmonies from saxophonist Candace DeBartolo and trumpeter Kevin Cordt, the title track could also be peak-era Springsteen. With Lauria’s erudite, Fever-ish solo at the center, it’s a long-lost cousin to 10th Avenue Freeze-Out. The nimble pulse of bassist John Young and drummer Tim Vaill propel the funny, filthy, syncopated latin soul anthem Love Saxophone, a look back to a period ten years further back, and several Manhattan blocks north and east. 

Antoine Silverman’s acerbic, Romany-flavored violin kicks off The Walk of Shame, a hauntingly orchestrated vignette of the dark side of the bright lights: “The night was so delicoius/Now a puddle is a mirror for Narcissus.” Then Cordt and trombonist Sara Jacovino work a punchy conversation in Because I Made You, a return to swinging oldschool soul.

The way Spottiswoode sets up the narrative in the distantly ominous, wistful clave-soul elegy Goodbye Jim McBride is too good to give away. The starkly bluesy, doomed, reverberating ambience of It’s on Me wouldn’t be out of place on Dylan’s Time Out of Mind album. Next, the band hit a slow, Lynchian swing groove with Batman & Robin, a disconsolate picture of a divorced dad out with his kids on the weekend.

Riley McMahon’s hailstone reverb guitar mingles with Lauria’s stern salsa piano and organ in Now Didn’t I? McMahon and the bandleader bulid spaghetti western menace over a 5/4 beat in Tears of Joy: as Lauria’s electric piano twinkles eerily overhead, it could be Botanica. Then the band hit a blazing soul-blues sway with Dirty Spoon.

A mashup of late 60s folk-rock Kinks and Springsteen E Street shuffle, Still Small Voice Inside could be the album’s most poignant, relevant number:

Hello, good evening
Did you accomplish what you planned?
Don’t you know the feeling
Too much supply no demand
Yeah it’s a drag, at least you tried
Now listen to the still small voice inside

Young’s big bass bends anchor McMahon’s lingering guitar and blues harp in Cry Baby. Wistful strings and Lauria’s elegant piano mingle in Sunset, a vivid, Ray Davies-esque vignette, followed by the wryly Waitsian swing blues Going Home for Christmas.

The album’s musical high point could be the swaying 6/8 noir soul instrumental East Village Melody, Cordt and then DeBartolo channeling wee-hours melancholy over the band’s glistening, distantly ominous backdrop. Spottiswoode’s gritty vocals soar in You’ll See, an unexpectedly optimistic Weimar waltz. The album winds up with I Don’t Regret, its lush strings and Leonard Cohen inflections: it’s an old rake’s colorful, defiant defense of a “sordid life.” The sounds on this album are old but timeless: it will age well, just like the guy who wrote it.

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.

An Auspicious, Powerfully Relevant Rhiannon Giddens Residency at Symphony Space

The only thing anyone could have wanted more of at Rhiannon Giddens’ show this past evening at Symphony Space was…Rhiannon Giddens. As a bandleader, the former Carolina Chocolate Drop and Americana roots music maven is extremely generous, and gave her bandmates plenty of time in the spotlight. The evening’s theme was a salute to influential, paradigm-shifting African-American women. The performance turned out to not only be the expected, characteristically insightful, potently relevant guided tour of a far too neglected part of American history, but also a fascinating look at how Giddens works up new material.

The venue has given her a residency this month where she’s not only playing but also booking the space. This was the first of her own shows, backed by a supple, understated rhythm section of Jason Cypher on bass and Attis Clopton on drums. Pianist Francesco Turrisi supplied rapturously glittering piano that spanned from deep blues to neoromantic lustre to postbop jazz power. Playing with a mute, trumpeter Alphonso Horne spun wistfully soaring, ambered lines. 

To her left, Giddens’ sister Lalenja Harrington took the role of narrator for the night, channeling Fannie Lou Hamer’s defiance and fearlessness with excerpts from a selection of prime Civil Right-era speeches. In a time where a new Jim Crow era grows closer and closer in the mirror, those words have never been more relevant.

In keeping with that relevance, Giddens sang Nina Simone’s Old Jim Crow. It was the centerpiece in a brief set of material by the iconic chanteuse. They didn’t do Mississippi Goddamn, but they did play Four Women, Harrington giving somber, gospel-tinged validation to its litany of resilient if embattled black American archetypes.

With her cutting alto, Giddens cut loose with her most raw, plaintive vocal flights of the night in a rousing medley of Sister Rosetta Tharpe numbers, first romping Down That Lonesome Road. Then Giddens and the band sent out a shout to current-day resistance with Up Above My Head, a theme that in the age of Metoo is felt as strongly in the air as it was in 1956.

Turrisi made the most of his chance to build stormy, McCoy Tyner-esque solos during a work-in-progress by Horne. The trumpeter’s grandfather, a South African immigrant, took a prominent role in the organization founded by legendary Harlem Renaissance activist and preacher Mother Kofi, whose history Horne is exploring. Harrington narrated the tale of how the charismatic Ghanian-born firebrand was discovered and then disowned by Marcus Garvey, how she set out on her own – and was assassinated in 1928. Turrisi’s clenched-teeth intensity over a rolling-thunder West African groove was one of the highlights of the night. From there, a faux-soukous interlude went on to the point where one audience member equated it to a Disney cruise ship theme. Then again, that’s the milieu Horne comes from.

There was also a tapdancer who seemed to be a last-minute addition to the bill, possibly working without a setlist. She began by kicking up a storm during the stern, richly ambered minor-key vamp that eventually segued into Giddens’ austere take of Summertime. At that point, the barrage of kicks and clicks began to drown out the rest of the band. It was like an Eddie Van Halen heavy metal guitar solo during the intro to Mood Indigo – or laughter at a funeral. And by the time the band hit that spirited Sister Rosetta Tharpe segment, where those volleys of beats would have been the icing on the cake, the dancer was out of gas.

Counterintuitively, Giddens encored with a stark take of the old Scottish folk song Pretty Saro. It’s not the first tune a lot of people in 2018 might think of as an immigrant’s tale, but Giddens put it in context. “Remember, nobody leaves their home unless they have to.”

Giddens’ set with more of her talented circle this Saturday night is sold out, but Turrisi is leading his own group at Symphony Space tomorrow night, Nov 15 at 7:30 PM and there are still tickets available. Those thirty and under can get in for $20.

Single of the Day 11/9/18 – A Scathing Soul Smash

Singer/multi-instrumentalist Alice Lee has been one of the brightest lights to emerge from the New York scene in recent years, a jazz singer at heart with deep soul roots but also an edgy experimental side. Much of her work could be the missing link between Nina Simone and Fiona Apple. This latest single, Me Too, (via youtube) nails a moment, and a movement: it could be the best song of the year.

Say it had it coming and I will own your game
Bury me standing and you will know my name

Shattering Acoustic Songs and Defiant Rock Anthems Side By Side on the Lower East

“The most depressing music ever!” That’s how one of the members of high-voltage rockers Petey & the True Mongrel Hearts introduced his bandmate, singer Erica Smith at the Treehouse at 2A a couple of weekends ago. But much as Smith’s shattering, nuanced voice and painterly lyrics deal almost exclusively with dark topics, her songs actually aren’t depressing at all. She’s all about transcendence. Which is what dark music is all about, right? If everything was hopeless, why bother? The real torment is the lure of something better, and Smith channels that hope against hope better than just about anyone alive.

Her career as one of the leading lights of a still-vital Lower East Side Americana scene in the late zeros took a couple of hits, first with the loss of her drummer, the late, great Dave Campbell, then the demands of job and motherhood. Since then, she hasn’t exactly been inactive, but her gigs have been more sporadic: we can’t take her for granted anymore. Playing solo acoustic, she was all the more unselfconsciously intense for the sparseness and directness of the songs.

As usual, her imagery was loaded. Glances exchanged, unspoken, almost buckled under the weight of a pivotal twist of fate. A surreal, dissociative stare up into bright lights could have been a prelude to a grisly interrogation…or just a particularly anxious moment as seen from a hospital bed. That reference came early during the night’s best song, Veterans of Foreign Wars, a brooding waltz ending with a scenario that could have been either an Eric Garner parable, one with broader, antiwar implications, or both. Otherwise, she strummed and nimbly fingerpicked her way through styles from austere front-porch folk to vintage soul to minimalist rock.

But Smith is hardly all about gloom and doom: she has a fun side. The solo set made a stark contrast with her turn out in front of the band, through a smoldering take of group leader/guitarist Pete Cenedella’s mighty, steamy oldschool soul ballad, Hand to Lend, which quickly became a launching pad for belting and torchy melismatics to rival Aretha. Nobody sings a soul anthem like Smith: we may have lost Sharon Jones, but we still have this elusive performer.

Cenedella got his start fronting the highly regarded American Ambulance, whose ferocious populism and interweave of Stonesy rock with what was then called alt-country won them a national following. But musically speaking, this latest group’s musicianship rivals any outfit he’s been involved with.

Drummer David Anthony’s matter-of-factly swinging four-on-the-floor groove and bassist Ed Iglewski’s trebly, melodic lines underpinned lead guitarist Rich Feridun’s incisively terse fills and Charly CP Roth’s rivers of organ. Alongside Cenedella, the harmony vocal trio of Smith, Lisa Zwier and Rembert Block spun elements of Motown, Tina Turner soul and Balkan gothic into an uneasily silken sheen.

The songs in the group’s first set (this blog went AWOL for the second one) rock just as hard as Cenedella’s most electric earlier material, and if anything, are more anthemic than ever. The addition of the organ along with a frequent 60s soul influence often brought to mind peak-era Springsteen at his most ornate: Gaslight Anthem, eat your heart out.

The catchiest and most danceable number was a slinky go-go-strut, The Getaround. The most straightforwardly poignant, in a mix of songs with persistent themes of heartbreak and crawling from the wreckage afterward, was the imagistic Skies Can’t Decide. Setting the stage with the catchy, defiant Down Harder Roads and Turning of the Wheel worked out well, considering the fireworks, both loud and quiet, which followed.

Petey & the True Mongrel Hearts are currently in the midst of recording a lavish double album, so they ought to be playing out a lot more. And Smith is at Otto’s on Nov 1 at 7 PM with Beatlesque soul band Nikki & the Human Element