New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: americana

Eclectic, Relevant Creole Songs with Leyla McCalla at Lincoln Center

“I don’t think I’d be here doing what I’m doing if I hadn’t left New York,” expat Leyla McCalla said early in her set Thursday night at Lincoln Center. She related how a passerby who saw her in her busker days here – playing Bach on cello – told her she’d make more money playing oldtimey swing on banjo. The rest is history.

The insightful, articulate former Carolina Chocolate Drop began the night solo on electric guitar with a spare prayer for peace that alternated between English and Kreyol. Joined by Dave Hammer on guitar, Pete Olynciw on bass and Shawn Myers on drums, she switched to that banjo and led the quartet through Capitalist Blues, the slowly swinging, gloomily aphoristic title track to her new album.

McCalla went back to Kreyol for a pulsing, bolero-tinged Haiting harvest celebration number from the 1950s, Hammer adding calypso flair. She engaged the crowd with a bitingly minor-key, coyly metaphorical, bouncy Haitian troubadour song, Hammer adding jagged menace with a modal solo.

Switching to cello, McCalla explained how traditional music engages her imagination, prefacing a brooding old Cajun song whose chorus translates as “Where has the little girl gone?” To her, the implication was slavery: the band’s combination of two low-stringed instruments magnified the sense of loss and distant horror.

From there she went into oldtime gospel, then “Switched gears pretty significantly,” she said, picking up her guitar and making her way astringently into Aleppo, a grim minor-key blues inspired by real-time social media updates from that doomed city. “Bombs are falling in the name of peace…do we care at all?” she asked calmly. Hammer capped it off with volleys of string-torturing tremolo-picking. 

He played slide on the balmy Kreyol nocturne that followed. The slow oldschool soul ballad Heavy As Lead, McCalla explained, was inspired by physician Mona Hanna-Attisha’s book What The Eyes Don’t See, her memoir of the Flint water crisis and how the government agencies involved tried to “maintain the status quo.” That issue has special resonance for McCalla, considering that her daughter had a brush with lead poisoning.

A biting, psychedelically merengue-flavored tune about an aging Haitian struggler – featuring a long, boomy drum break –  was next, followed by a sarcastic banjo-driven cha-cha on the same theme. “The root of all evil makes good material for songwriting,” McCalla demurred.

She spoke to the “role of black women in the United States as initiators of social change,” inspiring her participation in the all-female, banjo-centric Songs of Our Native Daughters project with Rhiannon Giddens, then led the band through a moodily resonant take of nonagenarian banjo player Ella Jenkins’ Little Sparrow. She closed the set with the spare, rhythmic Day For the Hunter, Day For the Prey, which she wrote about the 1980s Haitian immigrant crisis, although it transcends those specifics.

McCalla’s next show that’s not sold out is on her current home turf at the New Orleans fairgrounds on May 3. The next free concert at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is on April 18 at 7:30 PM with the Castalian String Quartet playing works by Britten and Schubert.

Janglerock Heaven at Union Pool This Week

Last night at Union Pool was a feast of jangle, and clang, and twang, with enough reverb to lower the air a few degrees, it seemed. Girls on Grass frontwoman Barbara Endes was especially psyched to be opening for her favorite band, which speaks volumes about how she writes and plays. Few acts have someone out front who can not only sing and put a tune together but also play as ferociously eclectic lead guitar as she did throughout a set that could have gone on twice as long and everybody still would have wanted more.

Although Endes is a generation younger, her band often sounds like the Dream Syndicate with a woman out front. Her band doesn’t duel like Steve Wynn’s group, but the songs have a similarly edgy blend of Americana and riff-driven rock, and a psychedelic side. This particular version of the group switches out Sean Eden on second guitar for David Weiss, whose honkytonk and blues licks made an incisive, burning counterpart to Endes’ slithery, precise cascades and chordlets on her lefty model Fender Jazzmaster. Bassist Dave Mandl got all of two bars in one of the later songs for a solo but made the most of his rise out of the murk. Drummer Nancy Polstein swung hard and traded coy beats on her crash cymbal with the bandleader on the intro to one of the early numbers.

Much of the set was drawn from the band’s forthcoming album Dirty Power, due out momentarily. From its soul-clap intro, through a surreal blend of honkytonk and Dream Syndicate stomp, Down at the Bottom spoke for a generation of displaced artists trying to not to lose hope (and their homes) amid a blitzkrieg of gentrification. And did Endes change the last chorus from “Come hang with me” to “Don’t hang with me?” Just how much of a cautionary tale is this?

The rest of the set was just as catchy and compelling. The slowly crescendoing, anthemic Friday Night perfectly captured the electricity of being “in like with a chick who likes good music” at a good show. The opening number, Father Says Why had a deliciously watery, careening clang, while Drowning in Ego evoked a jaunty late 80s vibe with Endes’ meticulous, lickety-split quasi-bluegrass riffs. Although Endes’ vocals had their usual crystalline bite, one of the best tunes of the night was the spaghetti-surf instrumental Two Places at Once, with a remarkable similarity, stylistically if not melodically, to the headliners’ adventures in surf rock. Endes has obviously listened deeply.

The Sadies have gotten a lot of ink here. And why not? Who wouldn’t want to go see a band with two brilliant lead guitarists – brothers Travis and Dallas Good – and who came out for what could have been a single encore but ended up playing a total of eight songs that went on for as long as Girls on Grass’ set. Drummer Mike Belitsky’s funereal accents on his cymbal bells lowlit one of the handful of the band’s brooding, Americana-flavored waltzes, Cut Corners. Bassist Sean Dean plays an upright so, this time, he unfortunately wasn’t very present in the mix beyond a low resonance.

Counterintuitively, the best song of the night was the quietest one, the band hauntingly shuffling through The Good Years, a crushingly ironic tale of a mismatched couple’s tragic miscommunications: “She never asked him, he wouldn’t say,” Travis Good intoned.

The rest of almost two hours onstage featured everything from bouncy, reverbtoned surf rock, to punkgrass – a lickety-split remake of the old folk song Pretty Polly included – to waves of Brian Jonestown Massacre-tinged psychedelia and a handful of garage rock covers including a slamming remake of the Jay Walkers’ I Got My Own Thing Going. The Sadies are back at Union Pool tonight, April 3 at around 9:30, then they’re playing two sets tomorrow night, April 4, starting about an hour earlier. Cover is $20 and worth every bit.

An Expertly Playful, Psychedelic New Album and Yet Another Barbes Show by Bluegrass Master Andy Statman

The other night at Barbes, there was a bluegrass band playing in the back. It was one of those immutably grim, raw, late winter evenings this city has had to deal with lately. Nobody, not even birds or cats, hates rain more than people in the venue business since nobody comes out. This particular moment was the kind where you plug in your phone charger, have a swift one, reconnect with the outside world, then head off to deal with what everyone’s throwing at you.

It would have been more fun to stick around tor the bluegrass band, because they were good. Gene Yellin, leader of the Night Kitchen, was playing guitar, and way over in the corner on the mandolin, expertly picking out a spiky lattice of notes, was Andy Statman. He’d just played a sold-out show at Carnegie Hall – and here he was, chilling with his friends at Barbes, not seeming to care if anyone other than his bandmates had decided to brave the storm.

Statman has been a pillar of the Barbes scene since the very beginning: if memory serves right, his monthly Wednesday night 8 PM residency there is in its sixteenth year now. And he’s the rare musician who’s iconic in two completely different styles: he’s also a virtuoso klezmer clarinetist.

Statman’s next Barbes gig is April 3 at 8 PM. He also has a new album, Monroe Bus – streaming at Spotify – on which he plays mostly mandolin. Although the record is a shout out to his and every other bluegrass musician’s big influence, Bill Monroe, it’s a mix of traditionally-inspired material and acoustic psychedelia. Alongside the rhythm section in his regular trio – bassist Jim Whitney and drummer Larry Eagle – Statman is bolstered by Michael Cleveland on fiddle and Glenn Patscha on piano and organ.

A picture in the cd booklet speaks for itself. It shows Monroe making his way to the stage at a performance in Fincastle, Virginia in 1966. In the background is a sixteen-year-old Andy Statman. Each looks very focused on his individual business; neither seems aware of the other. At this point in time, Statman has been playing even longer than Monroe, the “father of bluegrass,” had then. And it shows: his mandolin style has a rare elegance. His chords and his phrasing often have a deep blues influence, and he gets a full range out of the instrument rather than just picking it lickety-split like so many other bluegrass hotshots do.

Cleveland takes the first, dancing lead as the title track sways along over Statman’s unpredictable changes, the bandleader taking a characteristically edgy, bluesy solo. Reminiscence has some of Statman’s most gorgeous voicings here, although the organ threatens to subsume them. Ice Cream on the  Moon is a surreal mashup of Charlie Parker, Romany jazz and bluegrass, with a big breakdown at the end, while Ain’t no Place for a Girl Like You is all over the map, a Leftover Salmon-class blend of gospel, oldschool soul and jamgrass.

There’s a languid southern soul influence in Reflections, driven by Whitney’s bass; then Eagle introduces a clave! Old East River Road has an enigmatic, uneasy haze, then the band take the trippiness several notches higher with the bitingly klezmer-flavored, offhandedly creepy Brooklyn Hop.

The sad, nostalgic Lakewood Waltz has a late 19th century feel, Mark Berney’s cornet looming in the background. Statman’s rapidfire phrasing is on dazzling display in the Statman Romp – again, with distant klezmer tinges – and also in Mockingbird, a brisk shuffle tune.

Stark harmonies from Cleveland and Whitney anchor Brorby’s Blues as Statman rustles and trills overhead. Raw Ride is the album’s most deviously funny track: there’s a little Rawhide and a whole lot of Bob Wills in its briskly shuffling swing. The last track, Burger and Fries is a summery, gospel-fueled midtempo cookout of a tune. It’s hard to think of anyone taking bluegrass further outside the box, and having as much fun with it, as Statman does here.

Barbes: Home Base For NYC’s Best Bands

The problem with Barbes – and if you run a music blog, this can be a problem – is that the hang is as good as the bands. If you’re trying to make your way into the music room and run into friends, always a hazard here, you might not make it past the bar. Which speaks to a couple of reasons why this well-loved Park Slope boite has won this blog’s Best Brooklyn Venue award three times in the past ten years or so.

A Monday night before Thanksgiving week last year was classic. The scheduled act had cancelled, but there was still a good crowd in the house. What to do? Somebody called somebody, and by eleven there was a pickup band – guitar, keys, bass and drums – onstage, playing better-than-serviceable covers of Peruvian psychedelic cumbia hits form the 60s and 70s. The best was a slinky, offhandedly sinister take of Sonido Amazonico, the chromatic classic which has become the national anthem of chicha, as psychedelic cumbia is called in Peru. Where else in New York could you possibly hear something like this…on a Monday night?

On Thanksgiving night, the two Guinean expat guitarists who lead the Mandingo Ambassadors played a rapturously intertwining set that drew a more-or-less straight line back to the spiky acoustic kora music that preceded the state-sponsored negritude movement of the 1960s. Without the horns that sometimes play with the band, the delicious starriness of the music resonated more than ever.

The night after that, there was a solid klezmer pickup band in the house. The night after that – yeah, it was a Barbes weekend – started with pianist Anthony Coleman going as far out into free jazz as he ever does, followed by a psychedelic take on nostalgic 60s and 70s Soviet pop by the Eastern Blokhedz and then an even more psychedelic set by Bombay Rickey, who switched from spaghetti western to sick jamband versions of Yma Symac cumbias to surf rock, Bollywood and finally an ominous shout-out to a prehistoric leviathan that’s been dead for twenty thousand years.

Sets in late November and January left no doubt that Slavic Soul Party are still this city’s #1 Balkan brass party band, whether they’re playing twisted Ellington covers, percolating Serbian Romany hits or their own hip-hop influenced tunes. A pit stop here early before opening night of Golden Fest to catch the Crooked Trio playing postbop jazz standards was a potent reminder that bandleader Oscar Noriega is just as brilliant a drummer as he is playing his many reed instruments.

Who knew that trumpeter Ben Holmes’ plaintive, bittersweet, sometimes klezmer, sometimes Balkan tinged themes would blend so well with Kyle Sanna’s lingering guitar jangle, as they did in their debut duo performance in December? Who expected this era’s darkest jamband, Big Lazy, to take their sultry noir cinematic themes and crime jazz tableaux further into the dub they were exploring twenty years ago, like they did right before the new year? Who would have guessed that the best song of the show by trombonist Bryan Drye’s Love Call Trio would be exactly that, a mutedly lurid come-on?

Where else can you hear a western swing band, with an allstar lineup to match Brain Cloud’s personnel, swaying their way through a knowingly ominous take of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s Look Down that Lonesome Road? Notwithstanding this embarrassment of riches, the best show of all here over the past few months might have been by Turkish ensemble Alhambra, featuring most of haunting singer Jenny Luna’s band Dolunay. Back in mid-December, they spun moody, serpentine themes of lost love, abandonment and desolation over Adam Good’s incisive, brooding oud and Ramy El Asser’s hynoptic, pointillistic percussion. Whether singing ancient Andalucian laments in Ladino, or similar fare in Turkish, Luna’s wounded nuance transcended any linguistic limitations.

There’s good music just about every night at Barbes, something no other venue in New York, or maybe the world, can boast.  Tomorrrow’s show, Feb 18 at Barbes is Brain Cloud at 7 followed at 9:30ish by ex-Chicha Libre keyboard sorcerer Josh Camp’s wryly psychedelic cumbia/tropicalia/dub band Locobeach. Slavic Soul Party are here the day after, Feb 19 at 9; Noriega and the Crooked Trio play most Fridays starting at 5:30. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Mara Connor Brings Broodingly Catchy Tunes Back to Her Old Williamsburg Haunts

Mara Connor brought a catchy mix of subtly slashing, Americana-flavored songs along with other material and a talented Los Angeles-based band, making their New York debut on her old South Williamsburg turf at Baby’s All Right last night. Connor has a purist janglerock sense for catchy hooks and occasionally stinging lyrics: Jessie Kilguss is a good point of comparison. It’s a fair guess Connor has southern roots – there’s a twang in that voice, and a friendliness, Brooklyn soujourn or not. She now calls the left coast home after leaving the South 11th Street apartment she’d shared with a roommate, who was part of what appeared to be a sold-out crowd.

Too bad Connor’s acoustic guitar wasn’t in the mix for the first and best number of the night, No Fun. It wasn’t the iconic Stooges song – it’s the distantly noir-tinged, woundedly evocative new single from Connor’s forthcoming debut album. And it didn’t come together until the chorus kicked in and her lead guitarist hit his distortion pedal. Lana Del Rey, if you still haven’t gone off to where memes go to die, eat your heart out to this.

From there, it wasn’t all downhill. Connor’s originals were strong, as was one of the covers. That choice spoke volumes: an obscure, quietly scathing, gently circling Britfolk narrative, Fools Run the Game (was it Sandy Denny who did it the first time around?).

Connor followed the hit single with a brooding, world-weary, reflective freeway tableau – Los Angeles will make you world-weary by thirty, no doubt. After a lowlit, downcast reflection on an ill-fated fling with a dissolute older guy here, she played a deliciously venomous kiss-off to a sensitive artist type who turns out to be just the opposite. As Mary Lee Kortes once said, “Never mess with a songwriter: we always get even in the end.”

Connor sings in a supple, subtle mezzo-soprano with more than a hint of bite. But when she goes up the scale, she strains. Having made her album at a famous corporate Nashville studio, there may have been people around her who pushed her to do something she’s not really comfortable with right now. There’s a duet with Langhorne Slim on the forthcoming record; choosing instead to play the song live with the girlyboy who’s arguably the wimpiest songwriter to come out of New York in the last twenty years was a big mistake. Is Lach still kicking around? That would have been an improvement.

What’s the future for artists like Connor? Her songs are catchy and memorable: you feel like you’ve lived in them. But until the corporate dinosaurs die off and the stadiums where they play revert to the public who financed them, singer-songwriters are going to have to make do with touring the City Wineries of the world, hawking t-shirts and vinyl (because that’s the only recorded music format left that can be monetized) at the merch table and Bandcamp, and maybe getting lucky with a movie placement or two.  Here’s wishing all that to Mara Connor.

Globalfest 2019: Esoterica Rules, Again

Special thanks to Globalfest staffer Neha Gandhi, whose quick thinking, quiet diplomacy and efforts beyond the call of duty (and complicity in trying to create a teachable moment) made it possible for this review to appear

The premise of Globalfest in its early days was to connect talent buyers with booking agents representing acts from around the world. Youtube may have rendered that innovation obsolete, but every January, both crowds get together in New York to party on the company dime….and see some great music. The public comes out too. “I didn’t expect to see you here!” draws a response of “I didn’t expect to see you either!” Friends from the swing jazz or country blues scene discover a possibly secret, shared love for middle eastern music, and so forth. In 2019, more than ever, esoterica rules.

Sets are staggered in different areas of the venue throughout the night so that everybody can get a little taste of everything. As usual, last night’s show had more flavors than Dosa Hut (in case you haven’t already been seduced by the New York area’s most ambitious purveyors of sublimely delicious, crunchy Indian wraps, you are in for a treat).

Over the last couple of years, the artists on the bill have often represented a forceful backlash against anti-immigrant stridency, and last night was no exception. Both the whirlwind Palestinian rap-rock-reggae crew 47SOUL and magical Mexican chanteuse Magos Herrera – backed by string quartet Brooklyn Rider and drummer Mathias Kunzli – articulated fierce responses against wall-building.

But that issue was just a small part of each act’s many-faceted performance. 47SOUL spoke not only for the rights of Palestinians and Syrian refugees but for full-scale global unity against encroaching tyranny, through a blend of Arabic hip-hop, surreal dub reggae and keening, synthy habibi dancefloor pop. Likewise, Herrera drew on practically a century of pan-latin balladry, protest songs, classical and indie classical music, over a backdrop that was as propulsive as it was lustrous. It’s rare to see a string quartet play with as much sheer vigor as violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords and cellist Michael Nicholas.

It would have been fun to have been able to catch more of the spectacularly dynamic Debashish Bhattacharya, who alternated between rapidfire raga intensity on veena, and some unexpectedly balmy, twinkling slide guitar work in a Hawaiian slack-key interlude, joined by his similarly masterful daughter Anandi on vocals along with a first-rate tabla player.

Likewise, it was tantalizing to watch from behind the drums, relying on the monitor mix, throughout most of the night’s best-attended set, by theatrical Ukrainian band Dakh Daughters. The theatrical all-female group came across as a Slavic gothic mashup of the Dresden Dolls and Rasputina. In matching white facepaint and forest-spirit dresses, they paired ominous cellos against creepy piano chromatics and spritely flute over slow, ominous beats, switching off instruments frequently. As with so many artists whose cultures have been under attack, there’s no doubt plenty of grim subtext in their phantasmagorical narratives.

Since headliner the Mighty Sparrow had cancelled, the night’s largest ensemble were oldschool Cuban salsa band Orquesta Akokán, shifting through sparsely pummeling charanga-style passages, slinky mambos at various tempos, a lickety-split tonguetwister number and a machinegunning timbale solo that might have been the most adrenalizing moment of the entire night.

Playing solo a floor above, guitarist/banjo player Amythyst Kiah held the crowd rapt with her powerful, looming contralto vocals, her tersely slashing chops on both instruments and unselfconsciously deep insights into the melting pot of Appalachian folk music. Blending brooding, judiciously fingerpicked originals with a similarly moody choice of covers, she went as far back as 18th century Scotland – via 19th century African America – and as far forward as Dolly Parton, with equally intense results.

The evening ended with an apt choice of headliner, Combo Chimbita, who kept the remaining crowd of dancers on their feet throughout a swirling tornado of psychedelic, dub-inspired tropicalia, merengue and cumbia. Frontwoman Carolina Oliveros, a force of nature with her shamanic, hurricane-force roar and wail, circled the stage as if in a trance. Behind her, guitarist Niño Lento, bassist/keyboardist Prince of Queens and drummer Dilemastronauta built smoky ambience that rose to frenetic electric torrents and then subsided, a mighty series of waves to ride out into an increasingly chilly night.

Heartland Rock Legend Sam Llanas Goes Deeper into the Country

It wouldn’t be fair to let the year go by without giving a spin to perennially estimable tunesmith Sam Llanas’ 2018 album Return of the Goya Pt. 1, streaming at Spotify. The title refers not to a painting or a can of frijoles but the acoustic guitar that Llanas wrote many of his former band the BoDeans’ biggest hits on. It was stolen decades ago. Recently, a fan found out about it and bought him a new one. The unexpected acquisition jumpstarted what would become Llanas’ most country-flavored record so far.

The opening number, Follow Your Heart is a lighthearted shuffle with Tex-Mex hints and bursts of pedal steel from Sean Williamson (who also produced the album). Matt Turner handles bass; throughout the record, Kevin Dunphy and Ryan Schiedermayer take turns behind the drumkit.

The band keep the good vibes shuffling along with Recipe. All Day, a droll band-in-the van scenario, is one of the album’s catchiest tunes and is the first Llanas recording to feature brass (in this case John Simons’ trombone). Heroes, which alludes to the Bowie classic, is one of the album’s more muted songs, but Llanas’ portrait of the Women’s March on Washington packs a punch.

The blithe doot-doot-doots in Little Song contrast with its thoughtful narrative about a hometown pal who ended in the war in Afghanistan. They follow that with Little Song II, a wry mashup of Jimmie Rodgers and Johnny Cash. All Alone Again has the gravitas of a forlorn Merle Haggard honkytonk ballad, while Rio on the Run, an older song, finds new life with a much more upbeat arrangement, a soulful shout-out to a hardworking lifer out on the rock & roll highway.

Long Way Home, with its half-whispered vocals, is one of those late-night road narratives Llanas writes so well: it’s the hardest rocking track here. Down the Line is a brooding, soul-searching, mutedly syncopated ballad from a guy who admittedly “Likes to drink – and I’m kind of a stoner.” The final track is Big Ol Moon, a tellingly poetic reminder that trauma hits everybody the same way, whether uptown or downtown. Llanas’ 2014 album The Whole Night Thru, with its fiery noir ambience, remains the high point of his post-BoDeans solo work, and his 1999 album A Good Day to Die, with Absinthe, may well be the highlight of a hall-of-fame career. This one is calmer, Llanas’ voice is a bit more flinty, but when it comes to matching lyrics to catchy melodies, he’s undiminished.

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 11/5/18 – Country with a Conscience

Americana songwriter Hadley McCall Thackston’s Change (via Bandcamp) is probably the last thing you’d expect from a slow pedal steel-fueled country ballad: an understatedly withering commentary on cops shooting innocent black kids. From the Georgia native’s debut album.