New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: acoustic music

Poignant, Powerful Portuguese Fadista Gisela João Makes Her US Debut Downtown This Weekend

Fado is all about heartbreak. Like tango and the blues, it was dismissed for its ghetto origins long before it became more or less the national music of Portugal  Over the years, it’s gone transnational: you may not hear it on big stages in Paris or Berlin, but you will hear it wafting from maids’ quarters late at night in ritzy parts of town.

Charismatic singer Gisela João is just about the biggest thing in fado these days, making a lot of waves in the wake of the release of her latest album Nua (Naked), streaming at Spotify. She’s making her US debut on Feb 25 at 7 PM at the Schimmel Auditorium at Pace University downtown at 3 Spruce St. Tix are $30, and getting them in advance is a highly advised: this show is a big deal for expats across the tri-state area.Take the J/6 to Brooklyn Bridge.

João hardly fits the demure, doomed fado singer stereotype. Reputedly, she puts on a high-voltage show, and some of that energy translates on the album. Her voice has more than a tinge of smoke, and she often goes for the jugular with a wide-angle vibrato to drive a crescendo home. While that device is most closely associated with iconic fadista Amalia Rodrigues, João frequently evokes the darkest, most noirish side of the style. She’s got a fantastic band: Ricardo Parreira plays with a spiky virtuosity on the ringing, overtone-rich 12-string Portuguese guitar, Nelson Aleixo holding down the rhythm elegantly on classical guitar, along with Francisco Gaspar on acoustic bass. The overall ambience is both stately and impassioned.

Most of the tracks are popular standards with spare but dynamically textured arrangements, both retro and radical in an age where indigenous styles in so many parts of the world mimic the most cliched, techy American musical imperialism. Beatriz da Conceição’s Um Fado Para Este Noite (A Fado for Tonight) sets the stage with its ringing, rippling textures and João’s almost stern, angst-fueled delivery.

Há Palavras Que Nos Beijam (The Words That We Kiss) switches out the brooding lushness of the Mariza version for an oldschool, sparse interpretation. A little later, the group flips the script the opposite way with As Rosas Não Falam (Roses Don’t Tell), by Brazilian crooner Cartola. The first of the Rodrigues numbers, O Senhor Extraterrestre is a coyly bouncy, Veracruz folk-tinged tale which does not concern space aliens.

The album’s most recent number, Sombras do Passado (Shadows of the Past), is also arguably its most mutedly plaintive. Likewise, the rustically low-key, hushed take of the metaphorically-charged Rodrigues classic Naufrágio (Shipwreck). Then the group picks up the pace with the rustic Romany waltz Lá Na Minha Aldeia (There in My Village)

Another Cartola tune, O Mundo é um Moinho (The World Is a Windmill) brings back the crepuscular ambience, João channeling a low-key, world-weary cynicism. The band pull out all the stops with Labirinto Ou Não Foi Nada: (Labyrinth, or It Was Nothing): the twin guitars building a hypnotic, harpsichord-like backdrop for this slowly crescendoing lament for what could have been.

João saves her tenderest vocal for the last of the Rodrigues’ songs, Quando Os Outros Te Batem, Beijo-Te Eu (When the Others Hit You, I Kiss You). I In keeping with the album’s up-and-down dynamic shifts, João picks up the pace once again with the scampering, Romany-flavored party anthem Noite de São João

The album winds up with a desolate take of Argentina Santos’ Naquela Noite em Janeiro (On That Night in January) and then a wounded, gracefully lilting fado-ized version of the Mexican folk standard La Llorona. Awash in longing and despair, João’s new collection works both as a trip back in time for fado fans as well as a solid introduction to the style for newcomers from a purist who knows the music inside out.

Smart, Cutting-Edge Tunesmithing at Manhattan’s Most Comfortable Listening Room

Much as the world of singer-songwriters has shrunk, in the wake of the death of the big record labels – call it a market correction – Manhattan still has a great listening room for solo acoustic acts and small string bands. That venue is the American Folk Art Museum, just a few steps from the uptown 1 local to 66th Street, across the triangle from Lincoln Center. Their mostly-weekly Free Music Fridays series starts at 5:30 on the nose, goes to about quarter after seven and spans the world of folk music, from vintage Americana, gospel and blues to bluegrass, original songwriters and sounds from all over the world. That’s why this blog picked the museum as Manhattan’s best venue for 2016.

Jessi Robertson, with her harrowing narratives of angst and despair and her otherworldly, soul-infused wail, is the star of the show there on Friday the 29th. She’s a surprisingly funny performer for someone whose music is so dark and intense. She’s as captivating as the three best acts to play the space over the past few weeks: Joshua Garcia, Dina Regine and Anana Kaye.

Garcia held the crowd rapt throughout his brief set there last month. He has a flinty, clipped vocal delivery that’s bluesy without being cliched. He sounds like a throwback to the artists from the 1950s who influenced Dylan, but whom Dylan couldn’t quite figure out how to copy, at least vocally speaking. Along with a handful of populist anthems and nostalgic character studies, Garcia’s most riveting song was That’s the Way You Drop a Bomb. Told from the plainspoken perspective of one of the the crew of the Enola Gay, Garcia nailed every detail, right down to the pilot’s admonishment not to watch the explosion on the ground, the mushroom cloud or the firestorm afterward. Except that Garcia’s crewman had a conscience.

Dina Regine is best known as one of the pioneers of EDM, but her songwriting is vastly more interesting. On that same bill, she played solo acoustic on guitar, unselfconsciously making her way through a fearlessly populist set that made a great segue with Garcia. Shadowy vamping post-Lou Reed grit stood alongside warmly familiar retro 60s soul and doo-wop tunes, everything anchored in Regine’s background as a daughter of the Queens projects in the 1970s. She’s reputedly working on a new album which, if this set is any indication, promises to be just as eclectic and relevant as her last one.

Last week, Anana Kaye opened the night flanked by a couple of guys on rhythm and lead guitar. With her raccoon-eye makeup and circus rock outfit, she looked the part, but she transcends the theatrics of that cubculture (that’s a typo, but it works, right?). As a pianist, she really has a handle on uneasy, cinematic voicings that sometimes reach lurid, bloodcurdling depths. The best song in her tantalizingly brief set was Down the Ladder, a cruelly haunting desperation anthem. The most playful was Blueberry Fireworks, an aptly surrealistic shout-out to a gradeschool-aged friend with a vivid imagination. The more low-key material in her set reminded of Tom Waits while her upbeat, carnivalesque numbers reminded of a strummy, guitar-driven, lyrically infused Rasputina or female-fronted World Inferno. Kaye’s next gig is on Feb 15 at 8 PM at LIC Bar in Long Island City.

Four First-Class Female-Fronted Global Acts at Drom Last Night

Early into her second raga yesterday evening at Drom, Roopa Panesar took an impulsive slide up the neck of her sitar. Then another, then another, against the rumbling, rippling beat of both a tabla and a mridangam. That twin-percussion drive is unusual in Indian classical music, but it suited Panesar well. For somebody whose right hand was a blur much of the time, she plays with an economy of notes, letting the river of beats carry most of the weight while she ran through a deep catalog of centuries-old riffs and thoughtfully placed variations. None of the material in her tantalizingly brief set went on for much longer than about eight minutes, slowly crescendoing alaps (improvisational intros) included. Meanwhile, the mridangam anchored the music with a fat low end, sometimes in tandem with the tabla, at other times giving the tabla room to sail overhead with an extra layer of polyrhythms. Panesar could have gone on for three times as long as she did and the audience wouldn’t have complained.

Punjabi songwriter and ghazal reinventor Kiran Ahluwalia was next, fronting a fantastic band which included both her brilliant guitarist husband Rez Abbasi and accordionist Will Holshouser along with a rock rhythm section. Abbasi only took one detour into the raga jazz that he’s been exploring so memorably lately, but he really those adrenalizing upward flurries count. Holshouser and the bassist added more than a hint of roots reggae on one of the later numbers while the bandleader brought an especially vigorous edge to her lustrously entrancing songs. The most anthemic was Jane Na, which contemplates how to exorcise personal demons, she explained. The group closed with their bounciest number, a cover that gave Ahluwalia a chance to air out her nuanced but potently expressive upper register.

Quebecoise fiddler Briga and her band have lately shifted from the Balkan music that she first made a name for herself in, to embrace North African grooves and melodies. It’s a good fit all around. There were echoes of moody chaabi balladry, funky Nubian beats and plenty of enigmatic, Egyptian-tinged tunefulness in her kinetically pulsing mix of instrumentals and vocal numbers. Singing first in French in a cool, unaffected alto, she led her excellent band through a set which, like Panesar’s, could have gone on for much longer – but this weekend is the booking agents’ convention, necessitating a constant changeover between acts. Briga’s keyboardist shifted artfully from spacy P-Funk synth, to slithery accordion, to reverbtoned, Herbie Hancock-tinged electric piano psychedelia while her subtle, propulsive bassist and two percussionists wove an intricately boomy lattice of lows.

Eclectic cellist/banjo player Leyla McCalla enjoyed a warm homecoming set, joined by her husband Daniel Tremblay on five-string banjo and electric guitar, in addition to an inspired violinist playing under the name Free-For-All. McCalla’s biggest audience hit was a spare, bluesy, aphoristically minor-key number that she dedicated to “the President-Elect,” whose meaning essentially boiled down to “if you don’t have money, you’re no more than a dog.” That was the night’s most political moment. Otherwise, she switched between instruments, singing in a cool, clear voice in English, Cajun and Kreyol, reflecting her Haitian-American heritage. The spare, Caribbean folk-tinged Time For the Hunter, Time For the Prey, an early number, addressed the perils of Haitian immigration. There was also a lilting Haitian love song, a bouncy Acadian-flavored number along with distant references to zydeco and some deep blues. Hearing her play those spare, plaintively antique phrases way down low on her cello made for some of the night’s most texturally delicious moments, matched by her down-to-earth vocals.

This being booking agent weekend, there were other acts on the bill. The last time this blog was in the house at a Banda Magda show, it was the summer of 2015 on the Hudson River way up on the Upper West, rugrats were running all over the place and frontwoman Magda Giannikou entertained them with a mix of jaunty retro 60s-style French pop, Mediterranean ballads and some hauntingly shapeshifting, Middle Eastern-flavored material. And southwestern gothic avatars Orkesta Mendoza, who were scheduled to headline (after doing the same at a late show at the Mercury, no less), haunted and pulsed their way through a mighty set of noir mambos and bolero rock. That was a couple of weeks after the Banda Magda show and was a lot further inland, at the Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival. That band has a characteristically psychedelic, epic new album out; catch you next time around, amigos.

There’s another fantastic lineup starting at 7 PM tonight at Drom. With the snowstorm, this might be your chance to see an unusually intimate show featuring all kinds of global sounds from darkly slinky psychedelic boleros, to wild Ethiopian funk, to Moroccan trance grooves and more. Cover is an insanely cheap $10.

Kaia Kater Brings Her Individualistic Update on Classic Americana to a Couple of New York Shows

Banjo player/multi-instrumentalist Kaia Kater ranks in the vanguard of roots musicians inspired by classic Americana but not constrainted by it. Her debut album, Sorrow Bound encompassed oldtime Appalachian sounds, bluegrass and newgrass. Her latest album, Nine Pin – streaming at her music page – is considerably starker, darker and more blues-based. You’ve got a couple of chances to check her out live this week (see below: she’s on a couple of cool multiple-act bills). Give the album a spin and chances are you will be drawn in by her purist, rustic sensibility as much as by her commitment to age-old populist themes that have become especially relevant in these horribly surreal, pre-inauguration times.

The opening track, Saint Elizabeth – an Elizabeth Cotten shout-out, maybe? sets the stage. It’s mostly just Kater’s stark vocals and banjo over minimal washes of bass until Caleb Hamilton’s trumpet kicks in at the end. “Can’t you hear me calling to you, with black and broken teeth?” her grim narrator implores.

Likewise, Little Pink is a morosely swaying field-holler style vamp,  Hamilton’s spare trumpet contrasting with ringing electric guitar that adds an unexpected Malian desert rock duskiness. Paradise Fell brings an antique Appalachian-style tune into the 21st century, lowlit with resonant steel guitar: “Paradise fell, and the tenements grew,” Kater muses.

Rising Down hypnotically blends spiky banjo and pizzicato fiddle textures, fluttery trumpet on the top end balanced by low washes of steel: “I will stand with my people as one,” Kater intones matter-of-factly. Harlem’s Little Blackbird is a moody jump-rope rhyme of sorts, while the album’s title track broodingly contemplates the “evils of the setting sun,” in a down-and-out milieu. After all this dirgelike ambience, the aptly titled, spare instrumental Fun Times At Our House makes a sharp contrast.

The ominously spare piano waltz Viper’s Nest edges into minimalist art-rock, followed by White, a more sprightly, trickily syncopated, oldtimey banjo tune with gospel-flavored harmonies. Kater takes the music into warmly nocturnal territory with Harvest and the Plow and then after the last of a handful of improvisational miniatures that pepper the album, she winds it up with the jaunty Hangman’s Reel: this executioner is obviously having fun, maybe sarcastically.

Kater’s on the bill this Jan 5 at the Jalopy at a little after 8 on a great bill assembled by first-class Alaskan fiddler Ken Waldman along with several other artists: Nic Gareiss and Maeve Gilchrist doing their folk dance and harp act; Wild Hog with Thomas Bailey, Aaron Jonah Lewis and Max Johnson; Brian Vollmer & Claire Byrne playing oldtimey guitar-and-fiddle music; the fiddle-fueled trio of Chris Miller, Audrey Knuth and Mark Kilianski; and individualistic string band Laura Cortese & the Dance Cards. Cover is $15. You can also catch Kater at the small room at the Rockwood on Jan 8 at about 8:30 PM followed by thoughtful newschool Americana songstress Kristin Andreassen and charming antique Appalachian folk duo Anna & Elizabeth.

Hauntingly Rustic Oldtime Appalachian Duo Anna & Elizabeth Play Manhattan and Brooklyn Next Month

Anna & Elizabeth are revered in the folk music world for their homemade “crankies” – a 19th century invention which is sort of a cross between a nickelodeon and a flipbook – and for their otherworldly take on antique Appalachian sounds. When the duo come to New York, they usually play the Jalopy. This time around, on Jan 8 at around 10 they’re at the small room at the Rockwood preceded at around 8:30 by banjoist Kaia Kater – who lately alternates between bluesy rusticity and pensive atmospherics – and thoughtful newschool Americana songstress Kristin Andreassen. If you feel like paying a cover to see Anna & Elizabeth, they’re at National Sawdust on Jan 20 at 7 for twenty bucks in advance…but no drink minimum.

The news about this purist, old-fashioned pair is that their 2012 album, Sun to Sun, is available again after having gone out of print shortly after the two released it. If you think that Elizabeth LaPrelle’s voice is hauntingly stark now, you should have heard her then – and you can, at Spotify. The duo sing an a-cappella take of a variation on the old lullaby All the Pretty Horses to open it, then a slow, spacious version of a Transatlantic folk tune, When I Was a Young Girl, backed by simple, keening fiddle washes that are acidic enough to give you goosebumps.

They juxtapose a slow, resonant instrumental, Darlin Don’t You Know It’s Wrong with the understatedly creepy Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail, Anna Roberts-Gevalt anchoring it with her stately baritone uke. Then she picks up her banjo for a hypnotically steady version of the surreal battle-of-the-sexes tale Old Kimball, switching to guitar for the even more surreal country gospel number Ooh My My!

The two sprint through a tighly wound fiddle-and-banjo dance, Patroller, then take their time with The Letter Song, a sad a-cappella message home from a woman married away on the desolate edge of the early American frontier. The banjo-and-guitar tune Green Icy Mountain is a lot more upbeat if not much more optimistic: life in those days in that part of the world was always precarious.

Lone Pilgrim contrasts Anna’s spare guitar with the raw power of Elizabeth’s vocals. The two take the album’s title track back to its roots as a grim field holler – rather than making lickety-split bluegrass out of it like many have done – and do the same with a sparse take of the Scottish ballad Highlands of Heaven. The lo-fi quality of the original recording enhances its homemade charm.

House Concerts in New York: A Rare Trend Worth Following

One of the most redemptive developments in live music in this city over the past year has been the slow but steady trend away from the money-grubbing concert venue model toward artist-supportive house concerts and community-based performances. Three of this year’s best concerts have been staged not with monitors and smoke machines but with barbecue smoke in the background, or hamburger smoke wafting through the courtyard, or amidst a haze of various kinds of smoke (as of this date, it’s still legal to do that in your own apartment).

We’re talking transcendent, all-acoustic performances by Greg Squared and Rima Fand’s haunting Balkan/flamenco/Middle Eastern group Sherita, the similarly haunting Great Plains gothic songwriter Ember Schrag, theatrical art-rock band Goddess, mesmerizingly atmospheric guitarist/composer David Grubbs, astonishingly improvisational resonator guitar/viola duo Zeke Healy and Karen Waltuch and African psychedelic jamband 75 Dollar Bill.

You might not think that a band as wildly popular as 75 Dollar Bill, who played Bowery Ballroom last month, would play a house concert – well, they did. In fact, if you know where they played, there just might be another party there this Saturday night and while 75 Dollar Bill aren’t on the bill, if you know the owners of that space, you can text them and join the party. And if you don’t, you can be the next person to book your favorite band in your space, if you have the room and the beer or whatever it takes.

75 Dollar Bill occupy a place somewhere between the camelwalking desert trance music of Tinariwen, the bubbles of soukous and the uneasy modes of the Middle East. It was interesting to see them actually veer away from chromatics toward microtones when guitarist Che Chen introduced his brand-new guitar, which Brooklyn Lutherie guitar maven Mamie Minch had refretted masterfully for halftones and whatever nuance can be bent away from a string when you’re in between notes to begin with – in the western scale anyway. The jangling, chaming richness, underpinned by Rick Brown’s similarly hypnotic, subtly polyrhythmic drums, held the party faithful rapt.

Opening the night at that party, resonator guitarist Zeke Healy and violist Karen Waltuch distinguished themselves as both the most original oldtime Americana act and jamband in town. On one hand, their country blues had a comfortable familiarity that drifted off into space as each player diverged, with gentlly shapeshifing rhythms and long, nebulous, time-stands-still interludes that had more in common with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, than, say, Laura Marling. What was coolest to watch was how each player complemented each other, Healy’s incisions and rhythm against Waltuch’s resonance and intensity, nobody stepping on each other.no matter how far outside each of them took the melodies. And then they’d reconverge again, bringing three hundred years of string band music full circle.

Zeke and Karen’s next gig is at Bar Lunatico in Bed-Stuy on Dec 13 at 8 PM. 75 Dollar Bill have a weekly Sunday night residency at Union Pool this month, with remaining shows on Dec 11 and 18 at 8 PM; cover is $10.

Purist Americana Banjo Player and Songwriter Kaia Kater Hits New York for a Couple of Shows

Kaia Kater is sort of a Great White North counterpart to Sarah Jarosz. Both are relatively young (early 20s) and esteemed in Americana circles. Kater’s axe is the banjo; like multi-instrumentalist Jarosz (who has since fallen in with the dadrock crowd), her repertoire draws heavily on high lonesome Appalachian traditoinal sounds. More impressively, Kater is also a talented, tuneful songwriter whose originals stand out in the crowded newgrass/string band world for their vivid, often brooding rusticity. Her debut album, Sorrow Bound, is streaming at her webpage. She’s playing the Jalopy tonight, Oct 5 sometime after 9 as part of Feral Foster‘s weekly Roots & Ruckus multi-act extravaganza; haunting flamenco/Sicilian song reinterpreter Julia Patinella and blues duo Miss Jubilee & Ethan Leinwand are also on the bill. Then tomorrow, Oct 6 Kater is at the small room at the Rockwood at 10 PM.

Kater opens the album by reinterpreting the old standard When Sorrows Encompass Me Round as an ominously allusive southern gothic narrative, her spare, syncopated banjo encompasssed by low cumulo-nimbus piano ambience and the occasional steel guitar whine or roar. Kater’s gentle, honeyed voice rises a little in the jaunty, moonshine-fueled seduction tale Southern Girl, punctuated by dancing fiddle. By contrast, the field holler Sun to Sun evokes the most brooding, terminally depressed chain gang song you could imagine.

Kater switches to French for the spare but lively Acadian dance tune En Filant Ma Quenouille. Then she multitracks her voice for the understatedly funny, surreal, a-cappella Moonshiner. The instrumental Rose on the Mountain gives Kater the chance to flex her chops in tandem with the fiddle, eerie steel lingering underneath. A little later, the trio – Kater again joined by fiddle and steel – swing though another instrumental, the considerably more animated Valley Forge.

The one-chord, minor-key cautionary tales Oh Darlin’ and West Virginia Boys are dead ringers for mid-1800s Bible Belt folk tunes.The album’s longest instrumental, Salt River, is also its most hypotic and modern-sounding. Kater winds up with the understatedly eerie Come and Rest and its enticing Blair Witch ambience.

That Kater happens to be Canadian-born, of Afro-Caribbean descent, is really beside the point. Does anybody make a big deal of the fact that Hank Williams was white and sang a lot of blues? If anything, Kater’s writing reminds just how much cultural cross-pollination there was back when songs first soared over mountain valleys that hadn’t yet been clearcut, stripmined or dotted with cellphone towers disguised as pines.

Jim Kweskin and Geoff Muldaur: Just As Relevant As They Were Fifty Years Ago

Jim Kweskin‘s Jug Band sounded like they were as old as the songs they played. But that was the point.

They were hippies reprising the ribald, raucous sounds of folk music that went back as far as a century before them, sometimes to the consternation of the establishment. Over half a century after the peak of his band’s late 60s popularity, Kweskin and his bandmate Geoff Muldaur (father to Clare Muldaur of the brilliant art-rock band Clare & the Reasons) have a new album, Penny’s Farm – streaming at Spotify – and a release show tonight, Oct 4 at 7 PM at Joe’s Pub. Cover is steep, $30, but you could be witness to history. Who ever thought that Kweskin’s Jug Band, or any facsimile thereof, would ever take the stage again, let alone in their old Village stomping ground?

This isn’t the original Kweskin band lineup from all those years ago. Instead, the album features top-tier Americana talent including steel guitarist and dobro sorceress Cindy Cashdollar, blues fiddler Suzy Thompson, and singer Juli Crockett of the Evangenitals. The voices of both Kweskin and Muldaur have weathered over the years, but that’s to be expected, and if anything, enhances the songs’ rustic appeal. The music here has a spare, front-porch feel; in case you were wondering, there is no jug in this band.

Diamond Joe, the album’s opening cut, pairs Thompson’s fiddle with Kweskin’s wry vocal, Cashdollar’s dobro filling in the spaces elegantly. Likewise, the band gives The Boll Weevil a low-key, sly feel, signifying like crazy through this thinly veiled slave lament. And the Celtic-tinged title track, Down on Penny’s Farm resonates just as much as it did a hundred years ago, a grim tale of foreclosure and destitution.

The guitars in the swaying country blues Sweet to Mama are panned left and right to give the song an unexpectedly rich, lush feel, which the band reprises in the balmy 19th century reminiscence My Mary. And the interplay between the bandleaders’ fingerpicking in Fishin’ Blues is just plain gorgeous.

Early zeros New York Americana fans will remember the ballad Louis Collins (also known as Angels Laid Him Away) from the morose Jack Grace version. The band picks up the pace with the swinging ragtime-flavored Just a Little While to Stay Here, which they replicate a little later with the jaunty Downtown Blues, which Thompson caps off with a lusciously shivery solo.

Musically speaking, the album’s high point is The Cuckoo, reinvented as a somber, Richard Thompson-esque dirge awash in tersely purposeful guitar interweave. Kweskin continues to play his cards close to his vest throughout the surreal guitar cascades of the murder ballad 99 Year Blues; then the band waltzes with a vivid weariness through Tennessee Blues. The album winds up with a live take of the murder ballad Frankie, a reminder of how magically the band can recreate this stuff onstage. There’s also a vintage children’s song as well as a bizarre number in fractured Spanglish. Authenticity is a dubious concept these days, but this further cements the whole band’s claim to a vast, centuries-old heritage.

Free Music Fridays at the American Folk Art Museum: Manhattan’s Most Vital Americana Roots Music Scene

“When you think about it, how many real listening rooms are left in New York?” Lara Ewen, folk noir singer and impresario of the pretty-much-weekly Free Music Fridays series at the American Folk Art Museum, mused the other night. She’s on to something. Outside of the jazz and classical worlds, it’s hard to find a space in Manhattan that caters to an audience for less loudly amplified or acoustic sounds like the Americana roots music, and its descendents, that her series promotes.

Sure, people come to listen at Barbes, and the Jalopy, and the Owl, and sometimes Pete’s Candy Store when there isn’t a din at the bar. But all those places are in Brooklyn. In Manhattan, there’s hardly anything left. Rockwood Music Hall is a Jersey tourist trap, the Bleecker Street dives have been a joke since the 60s ended, and Sidewalk, while noticeably improved lately, still draws heavily on the autistic types who play the open mic there. And autistic people aren’t known for their social graces.

Which leaves Free Music Fridays. The series went on hiatus for a few weeks to accommodate an exhibition, then returned with a vengeance in early July with a simmeringly low-key performance by darkly lyrical former Madder Rose frontwoman Mary Lorson, who played an intimate, acoustic duo set with percussionist John Sharples. Since then, the series has been on a roll, requiring extra rows of seats since the audience continues to grow.

The highlight of last week’s installment was the opening set by aphoristic newschool country blues songwriter Nathan Xander, in a stark duo performance with a similarly purposeful fiddler. Since the series returned, other than Lorson, the most dynamic, exciting show was an impressively eclectic, smartly lyrical, historically-informed couple of sets by a roughly five-piece subset of mighty acoustic Americana powerhouse M Shanghai String Band. Ewen called them one of New York’s best bands, and once again she was on the money.

Frontman Austin Hughes distinguished himself with his clever wordplay, poignant and relevant historical references and plaintive harmonies, sung by everyone in this edition of the band (which can number more than ten people onstage). This version also featured Philippa Thompson on – take a deep breath – fiddle, bass, lead vocals, singing saw, washboard and spoons – plus Glendon Jones on mandolin, Patty Hughes on bass and a couple of family members taking an animated cameo or two on harmony vocals.

One of the band’s biggest audience hits, the broodingly lilting Sea Monster, turned out to be a contemplation of how instant internet access to information can stifle the imagination. At a distance at least, it’s more fun to ponder the existence of apocryphal creatures than to dismiss them. The similarly uneasy, harmony-driven Two Thousand Pennies resonated even more as an anthem for the New Depression. Aptly, toward the end of their second set, the band played Vivian Girls, an even moodier look at the inner life of disturbed outsider artist Henry Darger, whose work was first featured in a career retrospective at this museum.

M Shanghai String Band’s next show is back at their home base, the Jalopy on September 3 at 9 PM; cover is $10.. And the highlight of this Friday’s free music, this August 19 at around 6:30 PM at the museum, is Moji Abiola, whose eclectic sound blends oldschool soul into their paisley underground psychedelia.

Revisiting a Rare Gem by Jen Starsinic

Talk about working up a sweat: Jen Starsinic recorded her debut album, The Flood & the Fire (streaming at her music page) in hundred-degree Boston heat, with neither air conditioning nor fan, in the summer of 2013. The Nashville-based songwriter and multi-instrumentalist is hardly unknown – she toured extensively with David Mayfield, and is a staple on the folk festival circuit – but she deserves a wider audience. Vocally, she brings to mind the unselfconscious, plaintive depth and nuance of a young Erica Smith. Likewise, her songs run the gamut of Americana both old and new, from newgrass, to oldschool honkytonk, to more psychedelic pastoral sounds.

The album’s opening track, Time to Lose, an upbeat blend of newgrass and ethereal Americana pop, has a disarmingly down-to-earth bitttersweetness: ”Bones regrow but our heart doesn’t heal,” Starsinic explains, with just a millisecond of hesitation that packs a wallop. Ultimately, her message is  that there’s no shame in doing a second take if the first one doesn’t come out the way you want it. Likewise, the fiddle-fueled indian summer ballad Stay, a gentle nudge at a restless spirit who might just be happier in a relationship than in her “long years chasing boys around the block.”

The Only One Who Can Break a Heart is a morose vintage C&W ballad worthy of Laura Cantrell: “I’m damned if I stay, I’m damned if I try to leave you where you belong,” Starsinic laments. Oh My Darling‘s Allison de Groot lends her banjo to the low-key, John Prine-esque surrealism of Six Foot Three, while Molly Tuttle, of the Tuttles with AJ Lee, flatpicks on the intricately bristling, trickily syncopated Ragdolls.

With its stark blend of Starsinic’s fiddle and Eric Law’s cello, the understated escape anthem It’s a Foreign Thing puts a lushly textural spin on an antique Appalachian style. Mining its canary imagery for all it’s worth, Birdie in a Cage is just as allusive, and absolutely chilling despite the tune’s bluegrass warmth. The reverb on Starsinic’s voice in the lingering, woundedly pensive waltz Move in Time with Me matches the tremolo on her guitar.

Dive a Little Deeper sets Starsinic’s charmingly aphoristic yet characteristically brooding oceanic metaphors to an oldschool bluegrass stroll: “You can wait like a fool all sticky with sand for the water to wash your limbs, or you can wait like a fool all night and all day instead of wading deeper in.’

Charlie Rose’s atmospheric pedal steel hangs in the back throughout the even more disquieting Wildfire and its calm tale of a forest fire gone out of control. The gently but purposefully swaying Since You’ve Come Around winds up the album on a quietly shattering note, Starsinic pondering where the good times went “When it was dangerous you and cynical me.” Such a strong debut effort portends even better things for Starsinic: she’s somebody to keep an eye on.