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Tag: acoustic music

A Colorfully Lyrical, Fast-Fingered Songwriter on the High Plains

Billy Lurken is the rare Americana songwriter who’s also a hell of a lead guitarist. His axe is acoustic. He gets a much bigger sound out of his guitar than most guys who usually play solo, and does the same on the banjo. He’s just as strong at bluegrass-style flatpicking as he is with the big jazzy chords of western swing and his own high-voltage take on the blues. He’s also a vivid chronicler of the anomie and quiet desperation everyday people face in Flyover America. Born in Minnesota and raised in South Dakota, he’s a fixture on the high plains circuit. His next gig is a free outdoor show on Sept 19 at 2 PM at Wilde Prairie Winery, 48052 259th St. in Brandon, South Dakota.

Lurken’s songs pick up on the little details but also capture the big picture. “It’s a Monday-through-Friday sort of dying” is one of the key lines in the Studs Terkel-influenced number he opened with on a segment of the No Cover, No Minimum show on South Dakota Public tv which you can stream here.

Movin’ On is a showcase for Lurken’s fast fingers on the frets: it’s a brisk early 50s style western swing-infused boogie about how the years can take their toll on a couple.

One of his most memorable story-songs is Home, a fast-picked chronicle of something less than bliss on the blue-collar domestic front. For all the detail – the dust-streaked Cadillac, the stoned girl on the back porch with her “Audrey Hepburn shades” – it’s what Lurken doesn’t say that packs the biggest punch.

And he has upbeat, optimistic songs to balance out the gloomy ones. There’s Girl in the Flowered Dress, a showcase for his chops. Tumbleweed, a studio recording, has a luscious, bluegrass-infused mix of guitar and banjo. And Rider, a cowboy tune, is a stark, nimbly fingerpicked Jimmie Rodgers-style blues.

If it might seem odd that a blog which has advocated for live music throughout the five boroughs of New York might be paying so much attention to South Dakota, that’s because South Dakota is a free state. There’s no apartheid there, no spyware required to go indoors at venues, restaurants and bars. That’s the way it is throughout the rest of the free states: Florida, Texas and across the plains. America’s Frontline Doctors have filed a civil rights lawsuit to overturn Mayor Bill DiBozo’s evil, unconstitutional edict, and at the moment a lot of businesses aren’t enforcing it. Until we succeed in liberating ourselves, you may see more of what’s happening in the land of “Great Faces, Great Places” here.

Delicate, Warmly Enveloping Music For Harp and Guitar From Mirabai Ceiba

Mirabai Ceiba play delicate, warmly thoughtful, often hypnotic pastoral themes on harp and guitar. Sometimes harpist Angelika Baumbach colors the music with simple piano phrases, intertwining with Markus Sieber’s meticulously fingerpicked acoustic guitar, along with occasional resonant electric textures. Their new album The Quiet Hour – streaming at Bandcamp – has an understatedly persistent, optimistic, meditative quality. As you might expect, this duo likes long songs.

The first track is titled Ma. Baumbach sings the gentle mantra “My heart” over and over as the loopy web of acoustic guitar and harp grows increasingly intricate behind her.

The pattern continues in She (an original, not the 60s pop hit), a stately series of syncopated triplet figures underpinning Baumbach’s low-key meditation on connecting with the archetypal female.

Harp Lullaby is exactly that – it reminds of Kurt Leege‘s starry jazz lullabies

Baumbach duets with guest Marketa Irglova in the hushed, bittersweet Britfolk-flavored Take on a Thousand Forms. Que Quede Escrito features a stark string section and minimalist piano: Baumbach sings this tender spiritual in her native Spanish.

The album’s big meditative loopmusic epic is Ra Ma. The duo close the record with The Time Given to Us, its most bucolic and folk-tinged but also most anthemic number. If you’re feeling stressed – and who isn’t right now? – give this a spin.

Fun fact: the duo’s bandname is a shout out to both pioneering medieval Indian feminist and composer Mira Bai, and also the Ceiba tree, sacred to Mayan mythology.

Fearless Texans Raise Their Voices For Freedom in Austin

Songwriter Five Times August was obviously amped to open Texans for Vaccine Choice‘s massive protest at the Capitol building in Austin yesterday. So amped that as he left the stage, he forgot to tell the audience who he was. It took a vociferous reminder from a woman in the front row to send him back to the mic. You can watch the whole performance, as well as the inspiring parade of medical professionals and activists afterward, at the Highwire.

For someone who over the past year has been writing catchy, corrosively funny, tragically perceptive protest songs, gigs don’t get any better than the chance to play to a robust, impressively diverse crowd of over a thousand people. The guitarist and singer otherwise known as Brad Skistimas opened with his lone cover of the day, an aptly Steve Earle-influenced take of Tom Petty’s Won’t Back Down. Then the lyrics and the jokes started flying, fast and furious.

God Help Us All, a spiky, fingerpicked tune, might be the biggest viral hit (pun intended) Skistimas has had so far, no doubt due in part to the hilarious video on the front page of his website.

Citizen fools and brand new rules make everyone a hero now
Keep your distance, no resistance, only do what you’re allowed…
See no evil, bow to the needle, didn’t we turn out great?
Sick is the new hell, poor is the new well, truth is whatever they say…
Divide and conquer, weak not stronger, everybody know your place
Do it now, it won’t hurt, dig into your own dirt, virtue found its grave

His third number was an update on what Woody Guthrie did with This Land Is Your Land. The horror-stricken ballad Jesus What Happened to Us was taken down by youtube, no surprise considering the lyrics. It’s Eve of Destruction with a locked-in, lockdown-era focus: “Keep staring at your smartphone, get dumber every week,” Skistimas taunted.

The funniest song of the afternoon (and most hilarious video he’s made so far) was Outttayerdaminde, a rapidfire Subterranean Homesick Blues flavored broadside that makes savage fun of narcissists run amok on Tik Tok. The quietest and most sobering number was a new one, a sad waltz titled Silent War:

Someone is trying to sell you the cure
Same one who made the disease
And they’ll try to convince you, and make you feel sure
But hey, there ain’t no guarantee
They’ve covered your mouth and tied back your hands
They did it to all of the kids
And nobody knows all the damage it’s done
And won’t ask until the master permits

He wound up the set with the bouncy, defiant I Will Not Be Leaving Quietly.

The speakers afterward were a microcosm of the kind of ordinary heroes who have sprung up around the world in the past year and a half. Physician assistant Miguel Escobar, whose incendiary address to his local muzzlemaniac school board went viral a couple weeks ago, spoke truth to power in both English and Spanish (even if you’re a non-native Spanish speaker, he’s very easy to understand). He takes the mic at 1:19:00.

Irrepressibly upbeat hero nurse Jennifer Bridges – who is suing her former employer, Houston Methodist Hospital for being wrongfully fired for refusing the kill shot, even though she has natural immunity to Covid – is at 2:09:55. The Highwire’s Del Bigtree closed the afternoon with an impromptu challenge to the crowd to take the energy of the rally home with them. He’s at 3:18:21 in the video.

As the irreplaceable and tirelessly entertaining Dr. Pam Popper has revealed, the 70% figure the US government has been throwing around is a lie. The Kaiser Family Foundation study she cites, based on individual state records, puts the actual percentage of the population who’ve been coerced or terrorized into taking the kill shot at less than half that. Bigtree elaborated on a point he made a couple weeks ago on the Highwire, that the roughly sixty percent majority who won’t take the kill shot is not going to budge, and that the PR campaign behind it is dead in the water. Our challenge is to be less of a silent majority, organize and get back to normal, because nobody’s going to do it for us.

Speaking of which, there’s a big protest at City Hall here in Manhattan on August 25 at 4 PM.

Trans-Global Entertainment With Accordion and Guitar in Downtown Brooklyn

Erica Mancini is an eclectically talented accordionist with a background equally informed by jazz, tango, cumbia and Americana, to name a few styles. She sings in a high, crystalline jazz voice and is a master of passing tones on the keys. Smokey Hormel was Johnny Cash’s last lead guitarist, but also has a thing for Brazilian music and jazz. The two make a good team. Playing a duo set at the little pedestrian mall where Willoughby meets Pearl Street in downtown Brooklyn on Tuesday afternoon, they treated a sunstruck lunchtime crowd to a major portion of the innumerable (some would say unlimited) styles suited to their two instruments.

Mancini sang the opening number, a torchy Brazilian tune, in Portuguese. Later on, she spun counterintuitive cascades through a couple of rustic Colombian coastal cumbia instrumentals.

Hormel was especially at home, both voicewise and fingerpicking his vintage National Steel model, on a couple of Hank Williams songs and a jaunty, bittersweet duet with Mancini on the old Lefty Frizzell country hit Cigarettes and Coffee Blues. But he also had fun with an English translation of what he called a Brazilian cowboy tune.

Mancini invited up a friend to sing fetching Carter Family-style harmonies on I’ll Fly Away and then an extended, playful version of Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen. Mancini’s version of another klezmer favorite, Comes Love, was just as wryly cheery. The two didn’t do any Romany swing, or tango, or Mexican banda music, but this was just the first set. It’s anybody’s guess how many other cultures they dipped their voices into in the next hour.

The next lunchtime show on the little plaza is Aug 17 at noon with acoustic fingerstyle delta blues guitarist Noe Socha. Mancini’s next gig is tomorrow night, Aug 13 at 8 PM at Sunny’s in Red Hook, her usual home base these days. Hormel is also at Sunny’s on Aug 18 at 8 with his western swing band.

Ariana Hellerman, the onetime publisher of Ariana’s List, a fantastic guide to live music and summer festivals, runs the series here. In addition to advocating for live music, she also has a passion for dance and is especially proud of the dance series she’s booking further down the Fulton Mall at Albee Square, a series of performances featuring styles from around the world that continues into the fall.

Carola Ortiz’s Picturesque, Edgy New Album Celebrates Vivid New Catalan Poetry

Catalan singer and clarinetist Carola Ortiz‘s new album Pecata Beata – streaming at Spotify – is a gorgeous, defiantly feminist collection that sets poems by Catalan women authors to an electrifying blend of Mediterranean balladry, Romany and flamenco music, and fado, with classical gravitas and the occasional jazz flourish. It’s her first album where she sings all the compositions in Catalan, her first language. Not only is the music here colorful, and often haunting, but the lyrics are fantastic, even from the limited perspective of an English-speaking linguistic tourist.

From the hair-raising werewolf intro of Corro per la Nit to its leaping, Balkan-inspired rhythms and suspenseful lulls, it’s a wild opener, propelled by guitarist Bartolomeo Barenghi, bassist Pau Lligadas and percussionist Aleix Tobias. Ortiz’s dramatic intensity, bringing Anna Gual’s harrowing chase scene to life, contrasts with her spare, jaggedly incisive clarinet.

She overdubs a small choir of voices on the tricky, syncopated introduction to the grim folk song El Testament d’Amèlia. From there she hits a more melancholy, melismatic delivery, much like a fadista, with poignant, resonant clarinet joined at the end by violinist Heloïse Lefebvre, violist John King and cellist Sandrine Robilliard. Ortiz’s concluding wail will give you goosebumps.

Sirena, with lyrics by Mercè Rodoreda, is a surreal, shapeshiftingly alluring mix of cabaret, along with what could be fado and a Mexican ranchera ballad. Ortiz channels hope against hope amid relentless angst in Monserrat Abello’s poem Visc Por No Morir – L’Exiliada, over a bittersweetly lilting, guitar-driven Belgian musette-style waltz.

A broodingly crecendoing setting of a Rosa Pou text, Ala, Bat! Yes, Adeu is a mashup of fado and bolero, Ortiz’s impassioned melismas channeling ache and despair. Carme Guasch’s clever wordplay in Amat I Amic gets the album’s most hypnotically circling melody, with elegantly rising and falling violin from Robilliard.

Avui les Fades i les Bruixes S’estimen, with a lyric by Maria Mercè Marçal, has a similarly circular, syncopated string quartet arrangement, Ortiz finally sailing up to the top of her vocal register. The playfully strutting Cant de Juliol, by Catarina Albert (pseudonymously, ,as Víctor Català) is the album’s most comedic, carnivalesque number.

Ortiz’s bass clarinet dips to gritty, noirish lows in Carmeta, an instrumental, shifting from a shamanic musette of sorts to a slinky, tricky Bakkan groove. She sticks with the big licorice for the album’s lush, tantalizingly brief love ballad La Rosa Als Llavis, with text by Joan Salvat Papasseit.

A Smart, Defiant, Diverse Debut Album From Americana Tunesmith Cristina Vane

Cristina Vane shifts between a simmering intensity and a low-key, brooding vocal delivery. She’s a strong guitarist with command of a whole bunch of blues styles and writes sharply lyrical, darkly aphoristic songs. Her narratives are cached in allusive, grim rural imagery more than fire-and-brimstone gospel. Her brilliant debut album Nowhere Sounds Lovely – streaming at Bandcamp – covers a lot of ground, stylistically and otherwise.

She opens the record with Blueberry Hill – an original, not the Fats Domino classic, although the first verse of this intricately interwoven, Appalachian-flavored acoustic slide guitar blues is set in New Orleans. The devil tells her to get out, so she heads to New Mexico – and that isn’t any more welcoming:

We got spiders in the bathrooms and there’s snakes in the halls
We got our women in white dresses gonna walk through walls
And this house is haunted, not as much as me
But I could shake these demons, they’re good company

Travelin’ Blues has an easygoing Piedmont-style feel, Tommy Hannum’s dobro lingering over Vane’s nimble fingerpicking, bassist Dow Tomlin and drummer Cactus Moser giving it a, loping groove. By contrast, the stark banjo tune Prayer For the Blind has a midwest gothic fatalism, an endless cycle where “Time passes on old wounds as if they were brand new.”

Badlands is not the famous song by that 70s rock guy who became a hopeless lockdowner apologist, but a searing, allusively grim slide guitar-driven blues original. It could be a sinister account of antedeluvian rural hell…or a thinly disguised pro-freedom anthem. The big guitar payoff at the end is spot-on.

There’s redemptive solitude in the front-porch folk waltz Dreaming of Utah, Hannum’s pedal steel adding a touch of vintage Bob Wills western swing. Vane reaches for a matter-of-factly strutting Memphis soul feel in What Remains and goes back to blues with Heaven Bound Station, a steady stroll with some neat twin-guitar interplay.

She switches to banjo for Will I Ever Be Satisfied, a spare, lonesome-traveler type number. Vane imagines her ideal guy in Dreamboy, a stomping, insistent, similarly simmering blues: turns out she likes the strong silent type. Then she slows things down with the moody, slide guitar-driven Wishing Bone Blues, rising out of a hypnotic, summery resonance

The Driving Song captures a gloomy, desperate rural atmosphere where “The characters around me, border the absurd/It’s a comedy of horrors, and it just keeps getting worse.” Vane winds up the album the triumphant waltz Satisfied Soul, Nate Leath’s fiddle harmonizing with the keening pedal steel. If she hits the road in the free states this summer, she’s going to make a whole lot of fans.

A Look Back at Abigail Lapell’s Searing, Brilliant Getaway Album

Abigail Lapell’s 2019 album Getaway – streaming at Bandcamp – is one of the most brilliantly lyrical, tersely melodic original folk albums of recent years. Her vocals are usually understated, so when she rises to the rafters with righteous wrath, it takes your breath away. Sandy Denny is the obvious influence. Likewise, there’s a smoldering anger here. Abandonment is a persistent theme. This is not music for the faint-hearted but it is an elixir for anyone who’s ever been screwed over. And the tunesmithing, and musicianship, and arrangements, are sharp and purposeful. Time may judge this a classic.

The album’s first track, Gonna Be Leaving begin with Lapell’s warpy, trebly hollowbody blues guitar over Lisa Bozikovic’s stately piano and a vocal line that in classical music would be called a rondo. It sets the stage for the rest of the album: there’s a crushing irony in how the protagonist’s escape foreshadows the antagonist’s subsequent departure.

Ask Me No Questions a brisk waltz with distant echoes of early Fairport Convention. The ending is crushing – it’s too good to spoil. If vindictive is your thing, this is your jam.

Lapell’s circling guitar voicings in Devll in the Deep are nothing short of gorgeous in this otherwise tormentedly crescendoing anthem, Rachael Cardiello’s viola adding bracing bursts of color. Lapell switches to piano for Leningrad, an even more witheringly cynical, wintry ballad: “I come from a better place, but I don’t have far to fall,” she alludes.

With its spare, fingerpicked guitar and fluttering mellotron, Sparrow for a Heart is the closest evocation of Sandy Denny here, Rebecca Hennessey adding somber trumpet. Christine Bougie’s keening lapsteel floats over Lapell’s steady strums in the spirited yet haggard road narrative Halfway to Mexico.

The tricky rhythms and Lapell’s blippy keyboards underscore the surreal milieu of UFO Song: like David Bowie, life on Mars seems to be an improvement…until the narrator here sees the spaceship.

Lapell builds a hypnotic backdrop with her accordion in Runaway, an atmospheric take on oldtime Appalachian folk. Likewise, Down by the Water is a spare, harmony-fueled front-porch folk number.

Lapell’s hammer-on guitar sparkles darkly under the brass section in Little Noise: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Linda Thompson catalog. The album’s final cut is Shape of a Mountain, rocky terrain as metaphor for a defiantly individualist and weatherbeaten heart, set against a starkly resonant full-band backdrop.

Thoughtful, Tuneful Pastoral Sounds From Andrew Rowan and Steven van Betten

Andrew Rowan and Steven van Betten have an attractively melancholy, bucolic chamber pop album, No Branches Without Trees. streaming at Bandcamp. Fans of the quiet side of Elliott Smith, or the early BeeGees, should check this out.

They open with Calico Basin, a wistful pastoral theme for strings. piano and glockenspiel God Given Beauty wouldn’t be out of place on Nick Drake’s first album, although this has more somber orchestration that blends with Rowan’s stark reed organ. The album’s title track is a wistful waltz, strings wafting starkly over van Betten’s delicately fingerpicked guitar.

“Have no fear when they come for you,” is the refrain in the Radiohead-tinged Little Boy: words to aspire to in an era of trace-and-track.

A quaint, fleeting string theme introduces Mining Claim, a brooding waltz that strongly brings to mind Philip Glass’ Dracula score. The narrative for Herrman, set to plaintive strings and guitar, is hauntingly allusive: it appears this Dutch gradeschooler survived the Holocaust, but his siblings may be another story. The album winds up on a similar note with Last Walk Through the Desert: as the strings flutter and shiver, does this guy ever make it out?

Elegant, Rustic, Imaginatively Reinvented Sounds For Lute and Viola Da Gamba

There’s no small irony in that lutenist Ronn McFarlane and viola da gamba player Carolyn Surrick’s new album Fermi’s Paradox – streaming at Spotify – may be closer to the original source of its centuries-old British folk music than anything released by generations of guitar fingerpickers. Many times throughout history, the most ancient becomes avant garde again and this charmingly rustic, nimbly performed mix of classic folk, baroque and original themes is a vivid example.

The duo open with the title cut, an original with echoes of a popular early 60s Bob Dylan acoustic hit, the lute’s plucky, banjo-like tone contrasting with the dark bass washes of the gamba. The two give She Moves Through the Fair an aptly ethereal spaciousness before picking up with a jaunty clip-clop beat.

The album’s third track is a mashup of an ancient Swedish processional of sorts, a spare, elegant Surrick waltz and a briskly strolling Marin Marais work, a contrast the musicians revisit later in the album with another Swedish traditional piece and a 18th century Robert Robinson miniature. Their take of Blackwaterside has unusual syncopation and lively ornamentation, while Dave Shepherd’s The Rose of Raby is much more straightforward, with a clog-dance beat and stark resonance from the gamba.

Daniel’s Chaconne, a solo lute piece by McFarlane, has somber harmonies just off-center enough to make the song’s origin in time a mystery. Trinity Grove, another McFarlane number, is more warmly lilting, yet could easily pass for a traditional tune.

The two musicians parse the baroque repertoire for a pensive Telemann triptych and then a gently elegaic version of John Dowland’s Adew For Master Oliver Cromwell. A Bach transcription of a brief, stately Hans Leo Hassler work offers the duo a launching pad for striking textural contrasts.

Their bluegrassy version of the Allman Brothers’ Little Martha is a hoot. They close the record with a stark Turlough O’Carolan diptych and then a wry blend of Bach and Ave Maria.

The only track which really shouldn’t be on this album – or any other album – is a famous hymn written by a mass murderer. It never ceases to be amazing that the slave trader who wrote it – and killed hundreds, maybe thousands of kidnapped Africans – continues to enjoy the posthumous grace of having his song performed. This blog says enough is enough.

Spot-On Protest Songs and Spare, Eclectic Guitar Instrumentals From Austin Legend Matt Smith

Multi-instrumentalist Matt Smith is one of the great guitarists in Americana, among many other things. These days, most importantly, he writes protest songs.

Check out How We Got to Here, a spare, fingerpicked, dobro-infused number from his most recent album Being Human. In under four minutes, he paints a grim picture of recent American history, from the coup d’etat in 2000, up to the lockdown and how social media has paralyzed so many of us when we’re needed most:

We all saw it coming but we’re too self-involved to stand
Against the ones back in the shadows who wait to implement the plan
When they told us this was normal and did not believe the news
We took pictures of our dinnes and proselytized our views

Smith finds optimism in historical rebellions against past tyrannies: let’s hope he’s right.

The rest of the record – streaming at youtube – mirrors Smith’s long career as a bandleader, sideman to the stars and owner of a recording studio, the 6 String Ranch, revered as one of the go-to spots if you really want a vintage Americana sound from across many decades. There’s another great protest song here, Sanctuary, a dusky minor-key Robert Cray-style blues about the xenophobia that South American refugees run up against once they cross the US border.

“Why does it feel like the sky is falling?” Smith asks in the cynical, loping title track. After that, Smith channels a vast range of styles ranging from early 80s Midnight Starr stoner funk, to the Who.

Smith also has a charming all-instrumental solo acoustic album, Parlor – streamin at Spotify – where he plays a beautifully restored heirloom 1890’s Thompson and Odell parlor guitar. Most of the tracks are on the short side, some less than two minutes. Blind Blake-inspired ragtime fingerpicking, Piedmont and delta blues, Yorkshire-style balladry, Indian music, Leo Kottke wizardry, and, improbably, indie rock all figure into Smith’s distinctive, sometimes stark, sometimes opaque compositions.