New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Singer Sara Serpa’s New Multimedia Project Examines the Aftereffects of Imperialism

Sara Serpa is one of the most haunting singers in any style of music. She got her big break collaborating with iconic noir pianist Ran Blake – their  2010 album Camera Obscura is a masterpiece of menacing nocturnal music across all genres. Since then, her work has encompassed her own cinematic, often lush compositions, her role in John Zorn’s otherworldly Mycale chorale and an endless series of rewarding new projects and collaborations: there’s a restlessness in most everything she does. Her latest project was springboarded when she discovered a family archive of material relating to her native Portugal and its former colony, Angola, in the 1960s. You want uneasy? Serpa’s bringing that to a multimedia performance this Saturday night, Sept 16 at 7:30 PM in a trio show with harpist Zeena Parkins and tenor saxophonist Mark Turner at the Drawing Center at 35 Wooster St. in SoHo. This is one of the increasingly frequent series booked by Zorn around town; cover is $20.

Like every other major jazz artist, Serpa has to spend a lot of time on the road. Her most recent New York concert was a beguiling and unexpectedly amusing duo performance with her Mycale bandmate and longtime vocal sparring partner Sofia Rei in the West Village back in June. Completely a-cappella, the two made their way methodically through constant dynamic shifts, in a mix of originals, a handful of south-of-the-border folk tunes and several numbers from Rei’s album of radical reinventions of Violeta Parra classics. El Galivan.

It’s easy to see why Rei and Serpa are friends. Rei is a cutup and will go way outside the box without any prompting, to the remote fringes of extended vocal technique. And she can sing anything. Serpa is serious, focused, purposeful to the nth degree: she doesn’t waste notes and has an instantly recognizable sound. Yet she’s always pushing herself. “Welcome to our crazy project,” she told the crowd with a wry grin. And at one moment late in the set, while Rei swooped and dove and shifted into what could have been birdsong, Serpa rolled her eyes, echoing the melody further down the scale, as if to say, “I can’t believe I just sang that.”

Unlik what they do in Mycale, the two didn’t harmonize much. Instead, they took contrasting roles, often exchanging rhythmic blips and bounces, a funhouse mirror of gentle, emphatic, wordless notes. Without Marc Ribot’s guitar, the material from El Galivan often took on more gravitas: for example, a less rhythmic, more stately take of Casamiento de Negros, and a considerably condensed, airy version of the title track. And when there were harmonies, they were acerbic, and bracingly astringent, and warily rapturous. At the end of the set, another of Mycale’s brilliant voices, Aubrey Johnson joined them and added her signature lustre to the mix. Not having seen Johnson sing her own material in a long time, it would have been an awful lot of fun to stick around to see her lead her own band. But by then it was time to head to Brooklyn.

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Radical Cross-Pollination From Amir ElSaffar and the Brooklyn Raga Massive at Lincoln Center

The waves of melody slowly massing, leaping and often caressing the walls at Lincoln Center Friday night were less radical than they were a natural, spontaneous new invention. The premise: to mash up two often haunting, otherworldly traditions, Arabic maqam and Indian ragas, into a sometimes serene, sometimes turbulent, ultimately transcendent new element. Fresh off European tour, trumpeter/santoorist/singer Amir ElSaffar joined forces with violinist Arun Ramamurthy and another five of the world’s leading creative musicians in Indian classical music and beyond, for a dynamic, characteristically epic performance. As far as single-band concerts in New York in 2017 are concerned, this might have been the best of them all.

There’s far less of a stylistic gap between Arabic music and its counterparts from the Hindustani subcontinent than some might assume. Both traditions are highly improvisational and rely on overtones outside the western scale. Among many other things, this performance underscored how closely the most chromatic Indian modes resemble those of the Middle East, and how resonantly hypnotic Middle Eastern music can be.

“We’re going to experience Indian music in a radical new way!” grinned Lincoln Center’s Meera Dugal.  Ramamurthy enthused about how this show was an attempt to connect the “parallel lives” and shifting modes of Middle Eastern maqam with the Indian tradition’s slow upward trajectories, along with a heavy dose of improvisation.

The five-part suite hit a counterintuitive peak during the night’s first really lighthearted moment, a lively raga-based number fueled by tabla player Shiva Ghoshal’s increasingly animated beats. But even that grew overcast and wary to match the nebulous, distantly ominous sensibility that had pervaded the evening up to that point. Then sitarist Abhik Mukherjee took a gracefully bounding solo that was just short of imploring – and then Ramamurthy jumped in. This was too good to not be a part of. Everybody wanted a piece of it.. Bansuri flutist Jay Gandhi, cellist Naseem Alatrash and finally the bandleader himself followed, building a bracing, acerbic mist with his trumpet..

As a composer, ElSaffar’s genius is how translucent and irresistibly catchy his themes are: he is to this era what Miles Davis was to the late 50s. Likewise, Ramamurthy is taking carnatic  themes to places no one ever imagined – like this. From the allusively angst-fueled opening theme and variations that rose on an ashen tide of sound, to the concluding number – built around a familiar riff that the Grateful Dead famously appropriated – these elegant, often wounded melodies lingered long after the show. Yet ElSaffar’s most electrifying moments here were not on trumpet, but on vocals and then santoor, methodically and incisively rippling and pinging, once in exquisitely pointillistic tandem with kanun player Firas Zreik. Perhaps the most haunting, stunning solo of all was Alatrash’s somber, intense pavane right after the first movement finally coalesced. 

And the audience was treated to a fullscale spectacle that went beyond the music. Mukherjee opened the show with a brief creation-myth narration that set the stage for the night’s looming, enveloping introductory sonic cocoon. Meanwhile, intricate, tectonically shifting projections by Nitin Mukul played on the screen over the stage. Depending on the music, or the individual tableau – a mudpuddle, planes in the clouds, mandala-like images – he’d slowly pour water into each slide for a kaleidoscopically dissolving effect. And midway through the set, ElSaffar read a passage from Rumi about how after humans are long gone from this planet, invisible instruments will still be playing. For that we can only hope.

Much as it’s going to be hard to top this, that’s the game plan for Lincoln Center’s new series Outside India, a collaboration with the Brooklyn Raga Massive and the India Center Foundation, which seeks to radicalize and transform the Indian classical tradition for all sorts of innovations. Future artists who will be joined by Massive members here include adventurous Afro-Cuban drummer Román Diaz on Nov 10, and Malian singer Awa Sangho on Feb 9.

Meanwhile, the Brooklyn Raga Massive return to their weekly 8:30 PM Wednesday residency this month at Art Cafe, 884 Pacific St.  (at Washington Ave) in Ft. Greene. There’s a special guest every week, followed by a raga jam. Cover is $15; the closest train is the 2 to Bergen St.

80s Psychedelic Guitar Legend Russ Tolman Makes a Rare Stop in Brooklyn

Russ Tolman was the leader of one of the 80s’ most legendary guitar bands, True West. Though never as famous as their pals the Dream Syndicate – Tolman and Steve Wynn were in the equally legendary Suspects, and Wynn contributed some gloriously savage lead guitar to True West’s cover of Pink Floyd’s Lucifer Sam – Tolman’s songwriting was no less brilliant. And True West were every bit as incendiary live, fellow Telecaster player Richard McGrath dueling it out onstage with Tolman night after night. The band’s first two albums, Hollywood Holiday and Drifters are iconic: with its brooding layers of reverb guitar and Tolman’s ominous lyricism, the latter is easily one of the fifty greatest rock records ever made.

The original True West lineup hung it up in 1985; there were some sporadic but rewarding reunion tours in the mid-to-late zeros. All the while, Tolman has been releasing albums here and there, from Byrdsy folk-rock to low-key electronic experimentation. If he’s ever played Brooklyn before, it’s been a long time; if he hasn’t, then his show at Pete’s on Sept 14 at 8:30 PM will be his debut in the borough. Either way, he’s overdue.

Tolman’s latest recordings are a couple of singles. With it stomping beat and a whirling lead guitar line that brings to mind another great 80s guitar band, the Rain Parade, Marla Jane could be an upbeat track from True West’s peak era. Something About a Rowboat switches in a mandolin for the Tele Tolman might have played it on thirty years ago. Tunewise, this breakup anthem is just as strong – it’s interesting to compare Tolman’s flinty vocal delivery with the bravado of True West frontman Gavin Blair. Awfully heartwarming to see such an important, underrated artist from back in the day still at it and still at the top of his game.

A Barbes Residency This Month by Intense Jazz Passengers Leader Roy Nathanson

When you think of solo saxophone, do you get shadowy visions of some guy leaning against a brick wall, playing desolate, mournful phrases that linger in the mist somewhere on upper Broadway in the wee hours? Or is that just a personal observation?

Roy Nathanson played something like that late in a very rare solo show at NYU this past spring, but he also played a lot of much more kinetic material, in a spellbinding display of extended technique. It’s not likely that the Jazz Passengers bandleader and onetime Lounge Lizard will be playing much if any solo material during his ongoing Sunday evening 5 PM Barbes residency this month, but it’s possible. That’s what famous touring artists like Nathanson do here: work up new material and push the envelope outside of what pricy jazz clubs around the world expect from them.

For example, in the summer of 2016 Nathanson played a one-off Barbes duo show with pianist Arturo O’Farrill that was a feral blast of fun, a mix of Carla Bley-esque wildness and some of the (increasingly brooding) jazz poetry that’s helped raise Nathanson’s standing as a connoisseur of New York noir. The NYU show was a showcase for what a ferociously interesting and dauntingly virtuosic player he is. The Jazz Passengers are a song band with the kind of interplay that comes from three decades worth of gigs, but Nathanson doesn’t get enough props for his technique.

Alternating between alto, soprano and baritone sax, he switched reeds in and out of his various axes, explaining his fascination with getting just the right amount of smoke or nebulosity or brightness depending on what the song calls for. The evening’s most spectacular moment was when he played alto and soprano at the same time – with equal parts squall and melody. It was also very cool to hear him play baritone: a lot of alto players double on baritone to get more gigs, but Nathanson made it clear that he was just as much at home in the growly lows as the upper midrange where he’s usually found.

The material was mostly new and unrecorded, along with the first number Nathanson ever wrote – or was at least comfortable enough with to bring to the stage. There was anger, and rigor and intensity in that one – if memory serves right, he wrote it in the wake of his brother’s death. Many of the new compositions explored Jewish themes, although the echoes of both Eastern European Jewish folk music and liturgical melodies were distant and allusive. Nathanson also treated the gathering to some poetry: the most memorable piece pondered what the hell we’re going to do and where everybody’s going to go until the real estate bubble finally bursts and this endless blitzkrieg of gentrification collapses with it. Obviously, Nathanson said all that far more imagistically and succinctly. You might get some of that at Barbes this month.

A Small Subset of the Great Microscopic Septet Plays the Lower East Side Saturday Afternoon

There are few more definitively New York outfits than the Microscopic Septet – notwithstanding that a co-founder of this “surrealistic swing” crew is Australian. They predated the swing jazz revival here, but they’re not the least bit retro. They come out of the late 70s/early 80s punk jazz scene, but they’re not the least bit skronky. And pianist Joel Forrester foreshadowed this year’s avalanche of protest jazz by writing the theme for NPR’s Fresh Air as a brooding broadside against Bush I’s Gulf War. Beyond their substantial back catalog, they reputedly have a couple hundred more compositions they’ve played live over the decades but have never recorded. Their latest album, Been Up So Long It Looks Like Down to Me: The Micros Play the Blues is streaming at Cuneiform Records.

The Micros typically reunite for an annual Manhattan show or two. They haven’t done that this year, but their two lowest-register members, baritone saxophonist Dave Sewelson and bassist Dave Hofstra are playing a real 80s throwback kind of gig, a duo improvisation on Sept 9 in the community garden at Stanton and Norfolk at around 3. Avant garde cult favorite multi-instrumentalist Cooper-Moore – a big influence on Mara Rosenbloom – duets with bassist William Parker to start the afternoon at 2; afterward at 4, trombone wizard Steve Swell joins with Parker and TA Thompson.

The Micros’ album is a about as serious as they get – which isn’t totally dead serious, considering how much of their catalog is sort of the Spinal Tap of classic jazz – in that sense, they predated Mostly Other People Do the Killing by a couple of decades. The album opens with Cat Toys, a slinky horror film theme theme with the occasional wry piano flourish, a smoky Don Davis alto solo and Hofstra’s coy strut over drummer Richard Dworkin’s sotto-voce rimshots. Blues Cubistico is full of tongue-in-cheek stop-and-starts and gives Sewelson a vehicle for his genial wit. Likewise, the slowly swaying Dark Blue, with plenty of droll echo tradeoffs with the rest of the band and a similarly sardonic outro where the four-horn frontline finally coalesces.

Don’t Mind If I Do is a rare departure into straight-ahead, blithe, New Orleans-tinged territory with a slithery solo from tenor saxophonist Mike Hashin (who’s also the not-so-secret weapon in Svetlana & the Delancey Five). Similarly, another of soprano saxophonist Phillip Johnston’s tunes here, Migraine Blues has a comfortable wee-hours strut, but with contrasting, shivery solos from Davis and Sewelson.

PJ in the 60s, a catchy, triumphant swing shuffle, is Forrester’s shout-out to his bandmate Johnston, building out of a surprisingly messy sax cauldron and featuring a balmy Johnston trading off with the rest of the horns. When It’s Getting Dark is basically variations on the Peter Gunne theme, Forrester’s sardonic piano up against Dworkin’s emphatic drumming and some cartoonish chartwork from the horns. Simple-Minded Blues, dedicated to Spectrum impresario Glenn Cornett, is anything but simple, a cheery exercise in dressing up the blues in all kinds of strange voicings, but with a purist Forrester solo as a sweet caramel center.

After You, Joel, dedicated by Forrester to painter Joel Goldstein, brings back the shuffle groove and Looney Tunes exchanges of voices. 12 Angry Birds, a low-key, marching Ellington homage by Johnston, reaches for Mood Indigo lustre, with a brooding soprano sax solo that’s arguably the album’s most riveting moment.

Quizzical, Johnston’s salute to his bandmate and Micros co-founder Forrester, threatens to get satirical early on but straightens out with a purposeful Monk influence and plenty of room for the pianist to channel that. The album winds up with a blues version of a xmas carol – which should have been left at the curb for the trash truck beside that moldy Simon & Garfunkel album  – and a hefty cover of Joe Liggins and the Honeydrippers’ 1950 R&B hit I’ve Got a Right to Cry, sung with gritty passion by Sewelson. It’s unlikely that he and Hofstra will do much of anything this composed at the Saturday show in the garden…but you never know with any of these guys.

Sitar Star Roopa Panesar Kicks Off Her US Tour With an Electrifying, Dynamic Lincoln Center Debut

Sitarist Roopa Panesar is a rising star in the world of global Indian music. This past evening was her Lincoln Center debut and the first stop on her first headlining US tour. She was joined by Prishanna Thevarajah on mridangam and Nitin Mitta on tabla, two drums which aren’t often found on the same stage together. In Panesar’s recent work, the addition of the mridangam typically raises the energy and also anchors the rhythm with a boomier low end. As innovative as the concept  may be, it was Panesar’s matter-of-fact, purposeful sense of melody and wildfire attack on the strings that finally got the crowd roaring. 

Her first piece, the North Indian raga Jhinjhoti, was a duo with Mitta. “It’s very romantic,” she told the audience. There was a calm, tender, starlit quality to her spacious alap (improvised intro) – it was as if she was literally caressing the strings. A couple of striking swoops upward signaled Mitta, who gave the piece a spare, steady, elegant pulse. It’s not often that you hear a piece of music so unselfconsciously playful yet with the kind of lingering grandeur that Panesar gave it.

As the dynamics rose and fell, steady, suspensefully melismatic cadenzas gave way to an irrepressibly jaunty, rapidfire tabla solo and steely sitar intensity that resisted easy resolution – evening ragas are characteristically restless. Finally, Panesar landed on a tantalizingly catchy four-bar riff, smiled, then built a kaleidoscope of variations. A feral high note foreshadowed the long tsunami of glistening, ringing, oscillating, insistent waves at the end.

The full trio, with Thevarajah adding subtle accents on kanjira,  debuted a suite of raga themes, easing their way into a plaintively swaying gently circling ambience. As the music rose almost imperceptibly, there was broodingly meditative gravitas and then allusively waltzing angst and longing, the Silk Road stretching to the cold, unforgiving Russian steppes. Then the mridangam kicked in and there was no stopping this harried, paradoxically bouncy march, up to a big audience clapalong. Mitta’s hailstorm tabla brought back a momentary suspense before a thunderstorm percussion duel.

They broke with tradition to end the show with segments from a morning raga, the kind you hear at the end of a wild allnight party if you’ve lasted that long. This one had an irrresistibly edgy Middle Eastern tinge over a tricky 13/8 groove that quickly became a stampede.

This could be what Panesar will be playing at the next stop on her current US tour , at the Chicago World Music Festival in the wee hours of Saturday, Sept 9. That’s happening at 5 AM at the Chicago Cultural Center, Preston Bradley Hall,78 E. Washington St., 3rd Floor South. Admission is free.

This also happened to be the first installment of Lincoln Center’s new cutting-edge concert series Outside India, a collaboration with the Brooklyn Raga Massive and the India Center Foundation, which continues tomorrow night, Sept 8 at 7:30 at the atrium space just north of 62nd St. on Broadway with visionary trumpeter/santoorist/singer Amir ElSaffar leading an octet with Naseem Alatrash on cello plus Firas Zreik on kanun; Arun Ramamurthy on violin; Abhik Mukherjee on sitar; Jay Gandhi on bansuri flute, and Shiva Ghoshal on tabla.

Ohmslice Bring Their Enveloping, Pensively Lyrical No Wave to Gowanus Saturday Night

Ohmslice is the brainchild of dark existentialist performance poet Jane LeCroy and multi-instrumentalist Bradford Reed, inventor of the Pencilina. Behind his homemade, one-of-a-kind modular synth – attached to various-sized water cans for percussion – he brings to mind a calm version of Alan Vega. But where Vega so often went for head-on assault – in the early days, at least – Reed typically goes for sparkle and shimmer and ripple. Phil Kline’s early electronic work is also a good point of comparison.

Overhead, LeCroy freestyles succinctly and acerbically about politics, philosophy and the struggle to stay sane in this city and this country in 2017. On their debut album, Conduit – which isn’t out yet and consequently hasn’t hit the usual streaming spots – they’re joined by drummer Josh Matthews, downtown fixture Daniel Carter on trumpet and sax and Swans’ Bill Bronson on guitar. They’re playing the album release show this Saturday night, Sept 9 at 10 PM at Halyards in Gowanus; Brooklyn’s original Balkan brass crew Hungry March Band play beforehand at 9.

The album’s opening number is Crying on a Train, a plainspoken escape scenario buzzing, sputtering and clattering over a Atrocity Exhibition-ish groove. The instrumental Ancient Friendship follows a similar rhythm but with a hypnotic spacerock vibe. With Carter’s desolate trumpet over a rapidly decomposing dirge, Get Matter gives LeCroy a platform for contemplating how we’re mostly empty space – on an atomic level, at least.

The miniature Velour Kirtan hints at qawwali and segues into the blippy, rhythmic Snow, a dead ringer for Siouxsie Sioux’s Creatures. Quavering, keening guitar waves and tinkling electro tones flavor another miniature, Broken Phase Candy, followed by the increasingly intricate, loopy, insectile Gravity, which brings to mind Paula Henderson’s adventures in electroacoustica.

Rusty Ground is far more minimal: with its distantly boomy drums and low, drony oscillations, it’s the album’s most menacing track. Paint by Numbered Days begins more nebulously but soon becomes the album’s most dynamic number, building to an echoey wash that eventually fades down to a calm seaside tableau.

Contrasting lows and highs rumble through the mix beneath LeCroy’s deadpan robot vocals in Machine of You. The album winds up on a surprisingly upbeat note with the jaunty instrumental pastiche Ohm’s Awe. What is this? Performance art? Jazz poetry? No wave? Why hang a label on it? As Sartre once remarked, once you give something a name, you kill it.

There’s Nothing Jorge Glem Can’t Play on the Cuatro

Last night before the show at Joe’s Pub, the trippy sounds of cumbia icons Chicha Libre’s Canibalismo album wafted through the PA, a very good omen. Like Chicha Libre’s Olivier Conan, Venezuelan wizard Jorge Glem plays the cuatro, the shortscale Pan-American four-stringed instrument. The C4 Trio co-founder explained that he wants to bring that spiky little axe into every style of music around the world…and if there’s anybody who has the chops to do that, it’s Glem. You can watch the whole show at youtube.

He drew plenty of laughs for his account of how he came to play it. As a small child, he wanted to be a percussionist, but his mom wouldn’t let him use the family pots and pans. But there was a cuatro hanging on the wall of his home in Cumaná, a common sight in a neighborhood where it was more kitschy decor than anything else. With a big grin, he vigorously delivered the very first sounds he was able to get out of it: mimicking the beats of a conga by banging on the instrument’s body while muting the strings, first at the sound hole and then right at the headstock for highs and lows. Throughout the show, he also made it sound like a banjo, a mandolin, a flamenco guitar, a pandeiro, many different drums, a mosquito and a jet engine among other things.

Guest clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera also related a funny anecdote about Blues for Sonny, a Sonny Rollins tribute by Toots Thielemans that D’Rivera had recorded with the late jazz harmonica player. Michel Camilo heard it and said to D’Rivera, “That’s a Venezuelan tune! What does Sonny Rollins have to do with Venezuela?” So it would make sense for D’Rivera to play that warmly bouncing number with Glem. The two followed with A Night in Tunisia, which D’Rivera had first thrown at Glem at an impromptu performance at the National Arts Club…and was amazed to find that Glem knew it. That was a showcase for Glem’s postbop phrasing, but then again, so was Glem’s opening solo improvisation.

Joined by accordionist Sam Reider, Glem mashed up what sounded like an Irish reel, a high lonesome Applachian dance, vallenato and champeta, maybe, throwing in a boisterous improvisation midway through. Likewise, guitarist Yotam Silberstein playfully jousted with Glem throughout a shapeshifting blend of Caribbean coastal folk, postbop and some of the most fluidly legato Django Reinhardt ever played.

The final guest was singer Claudia Acuña, who held the crowd in the palm of her hand with her bittersweetly nuanced low register throughout a couple of ballads in both English and Spanish. Glem encored with a final, chord-chopping solo piece that quoted liberally from Bach and Beethoven, and maybe Yomo Toro and Dick Dale too. How Glem managed to get through that one without breaking either strings or his fingers is a mystery that has yet to be solved. No wonder there’s a documentary film being made about his crazy cuatro cross-pollinations here in New York. 

A Couple of Fun, Cutting-Edge Upcoming Indian Music Shows to Put on the Calendar

Mridangam player Bala Skandon leads Akshara, a Brooklyn Raga Massive spinoff who play dynamic, innovative, propulsively cheery instrumentals based on ancient Indian carnatic themes. The band’s debut album, In Time – an apt title from a group led by a drummer – is due to be up at Bandcamp soon.

It opens with Mind the Gap, a joyously dancing, verdant piece fueled by Jay Gandhi’s bansuri flute over a subtly morphing shuffle groove. As it builds steam, there’s a lushly rippling hammered dulcimer solo from House of Waters’ Max ZT and a couple of grinningly microtone-infused violin solos (either Arun Ramamurthy or Karavika‘s Trina Basu – it’s hard to tell who’s who).

Likewise, there are two cellos on the majestically swaying Mohana Blues, which is up at Bandcamp. Dave Eggar and Amali Premawardhana anchor Gandhi’s spare, enigmatic midrange lines, then join with the violins for a lilting, Celtic-tinged melody.  Opus in 5 follows a traditional raga tangent, violin and flute in tandem as the lively tune builds and the rhythm grows more energetic, then the band backs off for some takadimi drum vocalizing and a spare conversation between Skandon’s mridangam and Nitin Mitta’s tabla.

The dulcimer more or less assumes the role a sitar would play in Shadjam, strings and flute doubling the increasingly energetic melody line, down to a moody, nocturnal Gandhi solo and then a lusciously melismatic, crescendoing violin solo – that’s got to be Ramamurthy! 

The album winds up with the epic Urban Kriti. A long, spare dulcimer solo builds suspense up to an almost frantic peak, uneasily shivery cello and symphonic cadenzas trading off with lively riffage from the drums.  The band don’t have anything scheduled this month, but Basu and Ramamurthy have a rare duo show this September 10 at 3 PM at the Noguchi Museum, 9-01 33rd Rd. in Long Island City. The concert is free with museum admission, take the N to Broadway and then a healthy 15-block walk. And Akshara are playing the album release show on Oct 12 at 7:30 PM at Drom; adv tix are $20. If you love the cutting-edge collaborations that have been fermenting in the Brooklyn Raga Massive over the past several months, don’t miss this.

Nicole Atkins Brings Her Noir Soul to an Intimate Mercury Lounge Gig This Saturday Night

Here’s how to survive at the top level of what’s left of the music business. You tour constantly – summer festivals, rock venues, jazz clubs, house concerts, whatever’s available for the cash. You crowdfund your album, then record it live to two-inch analog tape with people who get what you do and can wrap it up in less than a week. Meanwhile, you bombard your fan base with everything from Spotify playlists of your influences to limited-edition concert recordings.  And the social media treadmill – one goofy pic after another, oy. That’ll drive you to drinking.

So maybe you quit for a bit. Nicole Atklns did that since booze has been her muse long before she wrote The Worst Hangover in the World. But while her latest album Goodnight Rhonda Lee – streaming at Bandcamp – has a requisite boozy song, the central theme is musical rather than lyrical, a spectacularly successful attempt to bring Dusty Springfield-style late 60s Memphis soul into the here and now. Atkins is bringing that to the Mercury on Sept 9 at 8 PM. General admission is $15, and since it’s a small venue for her, it couldn’t hurt to get there early.

The album opens with A Little Crazy, a co-write with Chris Isaak, a female take on classic early 60s Orbison noir. That crowdfunding campaign must have brought in a ton of dough because the production is lush: pedal steel, piano, shivery strings and Chris Vivion’s snappy hollowbody bass behind Atkins’ impassioned, soaring vocals.

Drummer Josh Block’s whipcrack soul/funk drums push Atkins’ Springfield evocation in the Darkness Falls So Quiet – it’s almost cute that the string section is more country than symphonic, maybe because the album was recorded in Austin.

Listen Up, inspired by a near-disastrous fall into a sinkhole after a gig in Knoxville, has a similarly funky snap. The way the organ voices a popular soul-gospel riff is awfully cool, as is how guitarist Austin Jenkins plays the In the Midnight Hour hook on the chorus at halfspeed. Lots of old ideas here, but they’re twisted into all sorts of imaginative new shapes.

The album’s title track opens as a dead ringer for an early Laura Cantrell favorite and then turns into a mashup of Tex-Mex and Everlys, with some neat staccato surf guitar for extra carbonation. Masking a recycled Brill Building riff behind sheets of sustained reverb guitar doesn’t work so well in I Could, but Colors, with its wary, surreal lyric and rich, string-heavy parlor pop ambience, is Atkins at the top of her moody game.

Brokedown Luck slowly coalesces with trippy quasi-barrelhouse piano and then a stark funk groove, peppy horns spicing Atkins’ narrative of frustration in a dead-end scene. The album’s best song is the slow-simmering, crushingly sarcastic, angst-driven piano-and-horns anthem I Love Living Here: “Nobody knows the real you, just the character you play…burn it to the ground,” she intones

Sleepwalking nicks a famous Marvin Gaye vamp and a slightly less famous new wave hook, but this elegant period-perfect early 70s-style soul anthem is irresistible. With A Night of Serious Drinking, Atkins puts her angst-fueled noir spin on what the Three Degrees would have done as a charmingly twinkling nocturnal vamp, complete with low-key brass and steel guitar lingering in the distance: “You and I are not like that legendary  bird that rises from the ash/ We burn and crash.”

The album ends with a slightly more optimistic one of Atkins’ towering, doomed signature anthems, A Dream Without Pain. “May the path be lit up by the bridges that I’ve burned,” she wails: things may be good at the moment, but how long will they last? Good to see Atkins still battling demons and making expertly catchy, smart music out of them.