New York Music Daily

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Tag: bluegrass music

Dori Freeman Brings Her Eclectic, Tasteful Americana to the Lower East Side

The big news about Dori Freeman’s second album, Letters Never Read – streaming at NPR – is that Richard Thompson plays on it. The song where he makes a cameo bristling with his signature, shivery, incisive Strat lines, is actually pretty slight, if tastefully assembled by Thompson’s son Teddy.

Much as it takes nerve to ask Richard Thompson to play on your album, it takes even more to cover the iconic Richard & Linda Thompson anthem I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight. OK, it’s not the original, but Freeman’s version does it justice, with some clever psychedelic touches. The rest of the album is more trad, and mines the same diverse Americana styles she explored in her debut album last year. And for what it’s worth, it’s somewhat less gloomy.. She’s playing the big room at the Rockwood this Thursday, Oct 19 at 8:15 PM; cover is $12.

Freeman gets a lot of props for her voice, and she’s earned that: it wouldn’t be overhype to compare her subtle, curlicuing blue notes in the second track, Just Say It Now, to Laura Cantrell. The pulsing country soul of Lovers on the Run brings to mind early 70s Melba Montgomery – Freeman gives it a more wintry delivery over Nick Falk’s almost martial drumbeat and Roy Williams’ steady piano chords:

I’ve looked into another’s eyes
When all the world was still
And just as I began to fall
They went in for the kill

From there Freeman mixes it up. With Alex Hargreaves and Duncan Wickel on austere fiddles, Cold Waves has a hazy, slowly vamping 70s Britfolk ambience, perhaps due to the Thompsons’ presence here. Freeman sings the bouncy Roger Miller-ish bluegrass tune Ern & Zorry’s Sneakin’ Bitin’ Dog a-cappella; Falk switches to banjo for the similarly retro, trickily syncopated take of the country gospel tune Over There.

Is that tubular bells, or one of those portable organs that Thompson likes to use, on the spare singalong Turtle Dove? Both, maybe? Likewise, the kiss-off anthem That’s All Right has a similar, muted nocturnal atmosphere, blending Jon Graboff’s spare steel guitar with piano and layers of guitar. It’s not clear who’s playing what: Neal Casal and Kacy & Clayton also contribute to the album. It winds up with a wry vocal-and-drums cover of Jim Reeves’ Yonder Comes a Sucker. If you go for eclectic Americana tunesmithing, purist playing, an unselfconsciously nuanced voice and lyrics that jump out and bite you when least expected, Dori Freeman is for you.

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Smart, Innovative, Unpredictably Brilliant Newgrass Guitarist Jon Stickley and His Trio Hit Williamsburg This Weekend

Guitarist Jon Stickley gets major props for his daunting chops, mashing up bluegrass with jazz, Romany and south-of-the-border sounds. His instrumentals follow unexpected tangents through all those styles and more, with a bright, cinematic effect. He and his trio’s 2016 ep, Triangular is streaming at Bandcamp, and they’re playing the Knitting Factory on Sept 17 on a strange but solid triplebill. Skronky Chicago guitar improvisers Tacoma Narrows open the night at 8, followed by Stickley and then Minneapolis newgrassers the Last Revel headlining at 10: $12 adv tix are available.

The album’s opening track, Blackburn Brothers gives you a good idea of where Stickley’s coming from. It opens as a shuffling, moody, minor-key bluegrass tune but then Stickley throws some fluid Romany jazz phrases in, echoed by violinist Lyndsay Pruett as drummer Patrick Armitage keeps a steady, swaying beat. They make straight-ahead, emphatic rock out of it at the end.

Plain Sight has a wary, dancing, insistent pulse – with different instrumentation and a heavier beat, this cinematic theme could be metal, at least until the trio hit a warmly windswept big-sky interlude midway through.

Palm Tree is a jaunty tropical number set to a tricky beat: as Stickey flatpicks and spirals around, Brazilian psychedelic rainforest jammers Forro in the Dark come to mind. With its constantly shifting chords,Echolocation is the killer track here, Stickley’s fluttery tremolo-picking adding border-rock ambience to a brisk, gorgeously bittersweet, Lynchian theme. Stickley even sticks a baroque fugue in toward the end!

Manzanita, the final cut, blends verdant Britfolk, bluegrass and a little Doorsy latin noir over a propulsive, steady beat. No doubt this album and the rest of Stickley’s innovative catalog  will be available at the show: Punch Brothers, eat your heart out.

Americana Icon Kasey Chambers at the Top of Her Charismatic Game in the West Village Last Night

“I’m so happy to be here. I’m so happy that I got into your country,” Kasey Chambers smirked,  drawing chuckles throughout the crowd at City Winery last night. The Australian Lucinda Williams shook off the effects of an attack of laryngitis that she said had left her literally speechless a couple of days before, tickled the audience all night with her sharp sense of humor, and left them breathless with her distinctive brand of Americana that’s as purist as it is individualistic.

“What I like most about what I do is that I get to take your music back to Australia – I don’t tell them it’s yours, I tell them it’s mine. And then I sell it back to you,” she grinned. While country and blues are not indigenous to the Australian outback, she literally grew up singing that around the campfire. By the time this evening was over, she’d related a few zany stories about living off the land there, as her lead guitarist father Bill Chambers did with his wife and young daughter for the first ten years of her life. The younger Chambers included that detail along with a whole lot more  in the wryly torrential lyrics of a Woody Guthrie-influenced talking blues that capsulized her career from those earliest days to her discovery of Twisted Sister in her middle-school years, to her surprise 2000 hit The Captain. That catapulted her to genuine stardom on her home turf ,and earned her a devoted cult following here.

She closed her set with that plaintively swaying, angst-ridden folk-pop number and got a standing ovation for it. Before then, she mixed up old favorites with a handful of bluegrass and oldtime blues-flavored tracks from her lavish new double album Dragonfly. Her band slayed all night. Dad drove home daughter’s catchy choruses with his red-flame blues and slide licks on Telecaster as well as lapsteel on a few numbers, while she switched between acoustic guitar, dobro and then banjo on a couple songs.

Guitarist Brandon Dodd and drummer Josh Dufficy took centerstage midway through the show with a lickety-split romp through a feral oldtime blues of their own, the bandleader beaming at how she’d discovered their duo project Grizzlee Train playing a random backyard beach bar and decided on the spot that she wanted them in her band. Alongside them, bassist James Haselwood added bluesy bends and nimble melodic runs, both on Fender and then bass uke, essentially serving as a third lead guitarist

The high point of the night might have been Ain’t No Little Girl, the centerpiece of the new album, with its ferocious, blues-fueled crescendos and bitterly accusatory lyrics. Or, it might have been a mutedly rapt version of A Million Tears, from Chambers’ debut album. Or for that matter, it could have been the title track to her second album, Barricades and Brickwalls, an indomitably female take on pursuit and conquest. Her youngest son, age nine, contributed both cajon and a little harmonica to that one. All night long, Chambers belted at full force in her signature twang, coming across as just as badass as she was fifteen years ago,when she sold out the old Bottom Line. She was six months pregnant with her first child at the time.

First-Class Original Bluegrass and a Lower East Side Gig From Cricket Tell the Weather

Cricket Tell the Weather have pretty much everything you could possibly want from a bluegrass band: inspiring instrumental chops, vivid storytelling and a dynamic range that runs the gamut from ecstatic to mournful. What distinguishes them from the legions of cover bands and pop musicians posing as Americana pickers is frontwoman/fiddler Andrea Asprelli’s songwriting. She’s informed by tradition but not reverent. Her songs are homespun but not sentimental, and she loves historical references. She and the band have a 10 PM gig on March 21 at the scruffy downstairs third-stage room at the Rockwood; cover is $10.

Their latest album, Tell the Story Right is streaming at Bandcamp. Asprelli’s accomplices on this one include Doug Goldstein on banjo, guitarists Mike Robinson and Jeff Picker, with Dave Speranza and Sam Weber each contributing bass. Over a steady backbeat, the newgrass opening number, Briar, takes a rather haggard perspective of being “too far down to come up or too far up to come down…Beware of the righteous and their charity, “ Asprelli intones, moody but purposeful.

If I Had My Way is a bitingly successful, bitter original take on the theme that the Grateful Dead appropriated for Samson and Delilah. “Never trusted photographs to tell the story right,” Asprelli confides over Goldstein’s steady picking on the following tune, Photograph. “All night we wait for the dawn, shimmers then it’s gone,” she laments. The interweave between banjo and fiddle is tasty to the extreme.

Alice, a portrait of a rugged individualist, has a jaunty oldtimey blues swing, a tiptoeing bass solo and a lively handoff from Goldstein to Asprelli. The balmy midtempo instrumental Lucinda’s Daughter is a launching pad for some hot guitar flatpicking and subtly wry banjo. “Gonna open up the classifieds, gonna buy the first rusty bucket I find,” Asprelli announces as the wandering That’ll Be My Home gets underway.

Eugenia is a rock anthem miscast as bluegrass: the band plays it tentatively, and it only leaves the ground at the very end. A group like Deer Tick would have a field day with it. There are also three covers here. The spiritual Little David Play on Your Harp gets a steady, propulsive treatment with soulful vocal harmonies. The version of Laura Marling’s Daisy turns out to be an imaginative mashup of Britfolk and Appalachian sounds, in the same vein as Jan Bell. The last one was written by a dorky, awkward piano pop girl; it gives Asprelli a chance to air out her vocal range, but otherwise it’s a dud. A writer as strong as she is doesn’t need to go scraping the bottom of the barrel.

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.

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.

Catchy, Impactful Acoustic Americana at Bowery Ballroom Tonight

Here’s a great way to get away from all the Halloween tourists from out ot state descending like a swarm of poisonous roaches on this city this weekend: go see popular North Carolina newgrass/Americana road warriors Mandolin Orange at Bowery Ballroom tonight at 9. Cover is $20.

Their new album Blindfaller is streaming at Spotify. While it draws on the same purist Appalachian sounds as their previous releases, it’s also more fleshed out, a full-band production. The band’s lyrics look back to an oldtime vernacular without being cheesy or cliched. And as with the best folk music, there’s a lot of subtext and symbolism here, a welcome, politically relevant, populist sensibility.

Fiddler/frontwoman Emily Frantz’s strong, crystalline vocals soar over a spiky backdrop of acoustic guitar and the band’s signature mando sound on the pensive, midtempo opening track, Hey Stranger, a cautionary tale. That’s co-leader Andrew Marlin on the four strings and Josh Oliver on the six. Marlin’s reflective vocals channel the slowly swaying, moody post Reconstruction-era ambience ofWildfire: it wouldn’t be out of place on a Richard Buckner album from twenty years ago. Likewise, pedal steel player Allyn Love teams with Frantz for a lustrous veneer for the sad honkytonk waltz Picking Up Pieces.

Building a scenario where there’s “a redbird in the corn, a blackbird at the door,” Lonesome Whistle is a gorgeously bittersweet Nashville gothic lament, with purposeful, biting solos from both fiddle and mando while bassist Clint Mullican pushes things along. “I saw it in a dream, monuments of trees, as the air we breathe turned our lungs to dust,” Marlin intones on the even more ominous, apocalyptic Echo, which maybe ironically is the album’s most retro number.

Kyle Keegan’s drums build to a quick peak as Cold Lover’s Waltz gets underway: it’s a more acoustic, Laura Cantrell-ish take on plaintive early 60s countrypolitan and arguably the album’s strongest, most anthemic cut. Oliver plugs in and plays with a raw electric tone on the steady, bittersweet, distantly Hank Williams-tinged My Blinded Heart, which is just as tuneful.

Ther album’s loudest track is Hard Travelin’, a straight-up hard honkytonk shuffle. The band follows that with the low-key, front-porch folk-flavored Gospel Shoes. a witheringly cynical, vividly aphoristic antiwar anthem. The album winds up with the spare, restless nocturne Take This Heart of Gold.

One particularly refreshing thing about this collection is what’s NOT on it. No simpering phony Beach Boys indie pop disguised as bluegrass, no autotune (even some of the Nashville crew are using it now), no product placements. Just an organic sound that’s just as new as it is old-fashioned.

Michaela Anne Brings Her Southern Charm and New York Edge to Williamsburg

Just a couple of years ago Michaela Anne was playing the small room at the Rockwood, now she’s on nonstop national tour. Last night at Union Pool, she and her tight, dynamic four-piece backing band transcended a laughably inept sound mix with an electrifying set that drew deeply and passionately on fifty years of purist country sounds.

She opened with the best song of the night, a ringing, rousing backbeat anthem that immediately brought to mind Tift Merritt in her early, full-throttle days, soaring up to a minor key and then an accusatory wail on the chorus. The rhythm section, anchored by drummer Aaron Shafer-Haiss, swung it hard as  pedal steel player Philip Sterk traded bars with the Telecaster player. Then the bandleader immediately flipped the script, channeling longing and sadness for an affair that never happened, distantly echoing Townes Van Zandt. Sterk kicked in with a melancholy, stratospheric solo that could have gone on for twice as long and nobody would have complained.

The night’s biggest hit with the ladies was Michaela Anne’s response to Ramblin’ Man. She explained that while she loves alienated wandering-stranger ballads and especially Hank Williams, she’d come to realize that the song is told from the point of view of a guy who’s abandoned his wife and probably his kids too. “”When you think about it, those guys were assholes,” she mused. “Well…maybe not, I didn’t know them, but that’s asshole behavior!” She followed that with a more upbeat oldschool honkytonk number, a co-write wirh one of the Stray Birds about falling in love at country bar; the lead guitarist kicked in a little wry Skynyrd to see if anybody caught it.

Introducing the catchy Worried Mind, Michaela Anne explained that during her time in New York, she constantly felt stressed. “But after I moved to Nashville, I realized that it wasn’t New York, it was just me,” she mused. After that, she brought the lights down, just her pensive, nuanced, Nashville twang, her acoustic guitar and Sterk’s steel, with an elegaic ballad inspired by the death of a loved one and the consolation that ultimately, we’re all the dust of stars. The rousing honkytonk hit Lift Me Up brought the energy back to redline, through the straight-up 60s C&W of Won’t Slow Down, another catchy barroom shuffle, a swampy Rodney Crowell cover and finally a lickey-split electrified bluegrass number where the band really got to show off their road-tested chops. The crowd screamed for an encore, but the house music came up immediately. The next stop on the never-ending Michaela Anne tour is the Armoury in Dallas on Nov 2.

The Calamity Janes opened with a similarly dynamic set of oldtime Americana, bluegrass and a slow, sad Hayes Carll ballad. Frontwoman/guitarist Mimi Lavalley, banjo uke player Betsy Plum, fiddler Kari Groff and bassist Jared Engel joined voices for some fetching high-lonesome harmonies through a a brisk minor-key Appalachian dance tune followed by an even darker country gospel number that was just as propulsive. They gave a surprise waltz ending to their take of Something’s Got a Hold on Me and dedicated a tune about the perils of marriage to Melania Trump. After a lowlit Carter Family tune, Plum switched to fiddle for a tightly spiraling reel; then she led the band through a romping version of Going Down That Long Lonesome Road. As with Michaela Anne, it would have been fun to hear more of them, even though they didn’t have their banjo player, Stephanie Jenkins. with them.

About the sound: a good engineer has to be able to respond in a split second on a fader, or a dial in or out, or, in a worst-case scenario, with a mute. The trouble with these newfangled laptop-controlled PA systems is that they’re unresponsive. Working that touchscreen is like trying to turn a boat, rather than turning a car, and the miserably sick guy in the beard and trucker hat obviously had his hands full with it. For one reason or another, his fault or not, it seemed that he was patching both the pedal steel and the lead guitar in and out of the same input. So when one came up, the other disappeared in the mix. To his credit, he kept a close eye on the band for the sake of bringing the instruments up during solos. But the biggest problem was the one he didn’t fix: the drums were way too loud. Then again, if all you listen to is Eminem, of course you wanna keep those bizzeats bizzangin’ at fizzull blizzast. Weird – the sound at Union Pool is usually excellent.

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.

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.