New York Music Daily

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Tag: blues

Adam Nussbaum Reinvents Leadbelly Classics with Taste and Good Cheer

On one hand, it’s always fun to play the blues – especially if you’re out of material and the crowd of drunks is still screaming for more. On the other, is your version of Got My Mojo Working going to be better than Muddy Waters? Obviously not. Beyond impressing the bartenders with your work ethic, hopefully assuring a return engagement, will anybody remember you played that song? Probably not. That’s a question that drummer Adam Nussbaum’s Leadbelly Project raises.

The premise of the record – streaming at Sunnyside Records  – is to reinvent Leadbelly songs as instrumentals. Beyond the obvious, does the group – which also includes tenor saxophonist Ohad Talmor, with guitarists Steve Cardenas and Nate Radley’s two axes standing in for Mr. Ledbetter’s twelve-string – actually add anything to the Leadbelly canon? Happily, yes. You can see for yourself when they play the Jazz Standard on Feb 27, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; cover is $25.

The album is smartly sequenced, like a live set. Playing with brushes, Nussbaum subtly varies a jaunty, New Orleans-tinged shuffle beat, Cardenas supplying burning, syncopated rhythm, Radley’s terse washes and incisions functioning as leads while Talmor’s sax dances in between the raindrops or provides lively, upbeat atmosphere.

A handful of these numbers are essentially one-chord jams; most of them are relatively brief, around the three-minute mark or even shorter. The first two, Old Riley and Green Grass, set the tone and establish the roles that the guitarists will shift back and forth from as the album goes on. Black Girl (Where Did You Sleep Last Night) sure outdoes that infamous grunge version – it’s sort of a Quincy Jones soundtrack piece, a roadhouse at still-sleepy opening time.

Bottle Up and Go is a lot more lighthearted, Nussbaum swinging on the rims before it picks up steam. each guitarist adding what in country music would be called a “strum solo,” staying pretty close to the ground.

It’s Talmor’s turn to get terse and bluesy in Black Betty, over Nussbaum’s second line groove – finally, the two guitars pair off for a a southern-fried jam. They follow that with the brief Grey Goose, built around a series of echo effects, then Bring Me a Little Water Sylvie, where the band finally diverge before slowly coalescing out of individual rhythms. Radley distinguishes himself with some unexpectedly rustic C&W licks.

You Can’t Lose Me Cholly gets recast as a joyous mashup of jump blues and calypso.  Nussbaum’s lone original here, Insight, Enlight gives the band a chance to revisit the dynamics of the first couple of tunes, rubato. They make straight-up swing – with a little choogle – out of Sure Would Baby and close with a warmly waltzing, aptly starry Goodnight Irene.

So is this rock? Well, it rocks – a lot, in places. Is this jazz? Sort of. Is it blues? More or less. Whatever you want to cal lit, it’s like nothing else out there. In less competent hands this project could have turned into a trainwreck; Nussbaum and the rest of the band really distinguish themselves with their collective imagination here.


The Black Lillies Rock City Winery With a New Lineup

The version of the Black Lillies that played City Winery last weekend was a lot different from the considerably larger version of the band who got a rave review here in the fall of 2013. Frontman/multi-instrumentalist Cruz Contreras has most recently pared the group down to a tight, lean four-piece. Drummer Bowman Townsend, who propelled the unit through this show with his usual blend of purist four-on-the-floor rhythm and vintage shuffle grooves, is the only holdover from that lineup.

But they still jam as psychedelically, if not as quite as much  as that incarnation. After a steady, upwardly driving hour and a half onstage, the takeaway was that this is as good a version of the Black Lillies as there’s ever been – Contreras has always drawn from a wide talent base, anyway.

The band’s not-so-secret new weapon is lead guitarist Dustin Schaefer. It was easy to see where his camaraderie with the bandleader comes from, considering the two’s encyclopedic appreciation of classic bluegrass, honkytonk, soul, stadium anthems and psychedelic rock. By the end of the night’s first number, Schaefer had cranked out two of his most sizzling solos of the night on his big vintage hollowbody Gibson, smoldering with chromatics and uneasy bluesy bends.

These Black Lillies rock harder than they ever have. Interestingly, the set had very little from the band’s most recent album Hard to Please. Instead, they focused on new material as well as a lot of the strongest anthems from 2013’s Runaway Freeway Blues, the band’s definitive statement to date.

Much as there were drinking songs, and band-on-the-road songs, and a handful of regretful ballads in the mix, the night’s central theme was the struggle to stay stay on solid ground in hard times. Maybe because of the current political climate, those songs of dashed dreams but also guarded hope resonated the most. In a revamped, amped-up take of Gold & Roses, Schaefer’s lead guitar substituted for the steel on the album version. Likewise, the band took Catherine – set in a surreal place with “nothing but blue skies and fire on the ground” – and made brisk bluegrass-inspired highway rock out of it.

The night’s longest number was a long, twisting psychedelic epic that went on for at least ten minutes, through a couple of false endings, part peak-era 1980s Grateful Dead and also Dark Side of the Moon Pink Floyd, a blend you might think would be crazy – but it worked. Contreras put down his Telecaster and played acoustic for most of the show, for one anthem after another. Matter-of-factly, the group followed a steady path through the exasperated 99-percenter tale All This Living, the cynical, honkytonk-tinged Two Hearts Down, and a terse version of Ruby, the group’s take on the old country blues standard Ruby, about a party animal who can’t stay out of trouble.

Contreras waited until the encore, a scurrying take of the old 70s Eddie Rabbitt radio hit Driving My Life Away, to take a solo on the Tele, but he made it count. And the best solo of the night was his two-handed, barreling charge down the keys of his piano on one of the new numbers. New bassist Sam Quinn played with a cool, low-key pulse, once in awhile rising to the top of the fretboard as a verse would turn around into a mighty chorus, and took over lead vocals on an unexpectedly Beatlesque new song.

The Black Lillies’ next gig is on Feb  15 9 PM at the Visulite Theatre, 1615 Elizabeth Ave in Charlotte, NC; cover is $14. For New York fans of similarly energetic if more lavish oldschool American sounds, crooner Brother Joscephus is bringing his New Orleans funk/soul orchestra there on Feb 6 at 8 PM. You can get in for $20.

Celisse Henderson Stuns a Lincoln Center Crowd With Her Guitar and Vocal Chops

Celisse Henderson is definitely an artist we feel is representing New York, and representing Lincoln Center,”  impresario Jordana Leigh told a packed house last night.

“I just want to let everybody know I’m really excited at being at such a fancy establishment without getting kicked out,” Henderson responded a little later. At her debut headlining show at Manhattan’s cultural mecca, the dynamic, charismatic multi-instrumentalist flexed some fearsome guitar chops, and her powerful voice, and kept the crowd in stitches with her between-song banter (she’s also an actress – go figure). Force of nature would be an understatement.

Backed by a tight, supple rhythm section – Mark McLean on drums and Paul Frazier on bass – she opened the night on Strat with a new number, America, flinging bits and piece of Hendrixian chordlets until she hit her solo midway through, and in a second peaked out the intensity with a searing blast of blues way up the fretboard. She switched to a vintage hollowbody Gibson for the next number, Stuck On You Blues rising from sunbaked red dirt Texas soul to a hard-hitting chorus and back: this time it was her vocals that pinned every needle on the soundboard.

She brought the lights down over a slinky, distantly boomy groove for the aptly titled Lost and then picked up the pace with a powerhouse soul-funk anthem, Mystery to Me. When she followed a snarling, flying leap out of a whirlwind of notes to low-register grit and then a trick ending, the effect was nothing short of breathtaking. Switching to piano, she got the crowd howling with a little ditty that called on the talents of Dorian the soundguy before a subdued take of Enough, an enigmatic, hypnotic soul ballad..

She followed the bouncy clave piano soul of Wanna Be Your Lover with Crazy, an impassioned guitar number with a wry, surreal, spiky low-register solo and then took the crowd to Memphis circa 1967 with the catchy, bouncy Undercover. Much as it takes nerve to do a song solo with just bass – a snazzy-looking Fender Jazz copy – Henderson made it look easy, making a snarky singalong out of the wry empowerment anthem I Love Being Me.

She closed with a slowly crescendoing, angst-fueled but ultimately hopeful piano ballad for troubled times, We’re the Ones We’re Waiting For and encored with Only Girl in the World, a smoldering update on Synchronicity-era Police.

The next concert at the atrium space at Lincoln Center on Broadway north of 62nd Street is Red Baraat leader and mega-percussionist Sunny Jain’s Indian jamband on Dec 14 at 7:30 PM. Get there early or risk getting shut out because the crew there never let the space get uncomfortably crowded.

One of the Year’s Best Triplebills at Drom Last Friday Night

“We don’t play with horns that much,” Big Lazy frontman/guitarist Steve Ulrich told the crowd late during their show headlining one of the year’s best triplebills at Drom Friday night. “Horns are,” he paused – and then resumed with just a flash of a menacing grin – ”Evil.” Then guest trumpeter Brian Carpenter and trombonist Curtis Hasselbring added a surreal acidity to the slow, ominous sway of a brand-new, ominously resonant film noir theme, Bluish.

“I wrote those harmonies to be as dissonant as possible,” Ulrich confided after the show. Which is ironic considering how little dissonance there actually is in Big Lazy’s constantly shifting cinematic songs without words. The trio’s sound may be incredibly catchy, but Ulrich really maxes out the ten percent of the time when the macabre  bares its fangs.

Case in point: the wistfully loping big-sky tableau The Low Way, where a single, lingering, reverberating tritone chord from Ulrich’s Les Paul suddenly dug into the creepy reality lurking beneath blue skies and calm, easygoing facades.

Drummer Yuval Lion and bassist Andrew Hall held the sometimes slinky, sometimes stampeding themes to the rails as Ulrich shifted from the moody, skronk-tinged sway of Influenza to the brisk Night Must Fall, finally firing off an offhandedly savage flurry of tremolo-picking to bring the intensity to a peak in a split-second. From there the group took a turn into tricky tempos with the surrealistic bounce of Avenue X and then the crushingly sarcastic faux-stripper theme Don’t Cross Myrtle, the title track from the band’s latest album (ranked best of the year for 2016 here). Big Lazy’s next New York show is Dec 4 at 10 PM at Barbes.

As the leader of the Ghost Train Orchestra, Carpenter is known as a connoisseur of hot 20s swing and obscure, pioneering jazz composers from the decades after. This time he played mostly organ and guitar with his brilliant noir rock band the Confessions, second on the bill: it’s hard to remember two groups this good and this dark back to back at any New York venue in recent months. Guitarist Andrew Stern played murderously reverberating, sustained lines in a couple of long, suspenseful introductory buildups in tandem with violinist Jonathan LaMaster, bassist Anthony Leva and drummer Gavin McCarthy keeping a taut pulse through a mix of songs that sometimes evoked Tom Waits’ brooding Americana or the uneasy chamber pop of the Old Ceremony.

Frontwoman Jen Kenneally worked every offhand wiggle in her vibrato to add to the songs’ distantly lurid allure, often harmonizing with Carpenter’s brooding baritone. A relentless gloom pervaded the songs, rising to a peak in the tensely stampeding City on Fire and then hitting a high note at the end with Blinding Light, which ironically described darkness closing in as the band stomped into the chorus. Fans of Lynchian sounds shouldn’t miss this crew, who hark back to Carpenter’s early 90s circus rock days.

Opening act the Claudettes have gone in a completely different direction since ripping the roof off Barbes on a twinbill with Big Lazy a couple of years ago. These days, gonzo saloon jazz pianist Johnny Iguana has muted his attack somewhat: the band came across as a sort of Windy City counterpart to Lake Street Dive. Which isn’t a bad thing at all – Lake  Street Dive are a great blue-eyed soul band.

New frontwoman Berit Ulseth channeled brass, ice and brittle vulnerability through the sarcastic I Expect Big Things and then the cruel punchline that followed, Declined. In yet another of the evening’s many strokes of irony, the group’s biggest hit with the audience was a Debussy-esque, low-key tone-poem of sorts about discovering a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The bandleader brought to mind New York beatnik jazz cult hero Dred Scott in the sardonically frantic barrelhouse instrumental You Busy Beaver You and then the slyly bluesy cautionary tale Creeper Weed, about how to avoid getting blindsided by one hit too many. They wound up the set with the understatedly gloomy The Show Must Go On (Then the Show Must End), part Waits, part early Steely Dan. The Claudettes tour continues; the next stop is back in their Chicago hometown at 9 PM on Nov 17 at the Hideout; cover is $12.

And as always, Drom – downtown New York’s most consistently diverse music room – has some cool upcoming shows. One especially interesting one is on Nov 25 at 10:30 PM, and it’s a rare free event there, with Polish crew Nasza Sciana doing vintage Slavic turbo-folk hits.

The Legendary Shack Shakers Validate Their Legend in Brooklyn

Saturday night in downtown Brooklyn, the Legendary Shack Shakers lived up to their legend with a marauding, macabre performance. How does frontman JD Wilkes stay in such great shape? By playing shows like this one. Midway through the set, he left his feet for the umpteenth time, spun in midair and did a full 360 with a perfect Olympic landing. And this was after he’d really worked up a sweat. Athletic stage moves go back long before Chuck Berry, but the Colonel still pushes himself as hard as he did twenty years ago.

When he wasn’t spinning across the stage or frisbeeing a heavy-duty red wooden tambourine into the crowd, he was blowing feral but wickedly precise, Little Walter-ish blues on a chromatic harp, or burning through similarly menacing chromatics on his banjo. He ran his vocals through two separate mics, one straight into the PA along with an old ribbon mic turned up to the point of distortion for a bullhorn effect. Somewhere Lux Interior is stewing with jealousy.

But while the Cramps seem to be one obvious influence on this band, the Shack Shakers are a lot wilder, a hell of a lot faster – they sped up several of their numbers past breaking point – and a lot of the time they sound a lot more Middle Eastern than American. Then again, Wilkes – a respected musicologist and historian of Kentucky mountain music – would probably cite a lesser-known strain of Irish music that made its way to the Bible Belt without losing any of its creepy edge.

And the rest of the band are phenomenal. Drummer Preston Corn kept the express-train-to-hell shuffle going at full throttle, bassist Fuller Condon provided a cool serpentine slink and guitarist Rod Hamdallah burned through the ominous changes with a calm, precise savagery, letitng the blasts from his vintage hollow-body model linger and resonate before firing off another volley of twisted rockabilly or blues.

The Shack Shakers have a new album, After You’ve Gone, out recently, and Wilkes and his conspirators drew heavily on it. Their witheringly cynical, allusively political new take of Worried Man Blues came across like CW Stoneking on crank, while the rapidfire War Whoop gave Wilkes a platform for some extra snazzy stage moves. And like so much of the rest of the set, the dirty blues of Curse of the Cajun Queen were packed with the surreal fire-and-brimstone imagery that’s been Wilkes’ signature since the 90s. You’ll see this show listed on the best New York concerts of 2017 page here at the end of the year.

The Legendary Shack Shakers’ tour continues; the next stop is Dec 1 at around 10:30 PM at the Outland, 322 South Ave. in Springfield, Missouri; cover is $12. 

The Hooten Halllers Bring Their Funny, Edgy Southern Soul and Americana to Town This Weekend

Columbia, Missouri band the Hooten Hallers play purist southern soul and Americana with a sense of humor. On one hand, the growling baritone sax and grooves are totally retro. On the other hand, their songs are completely in the here and now. If there’s any group who can get the gaggles of tourists stuffing their faces at Hill Country to shut up and listen, it’s this crew. They’re there this Saturday night, Oct 28 at 10 PM and then at the restaurant’s much more listener-friendly upstairs room at the downtown Brooklyn branch on Monday the 30th at 9. Let’s hope the PA there is working because it’s been a mess lately.

The Hooten Hallers’ latest album  is streaming at Spotify. As the opening track, Charla, gets underway, frontman/guitarist John Randall rasping away over Kellie Everett’s ever-present, smoky bari sax, it could be the latest in a long line of Dr. John ripoffs. But as this twisted tale set in Lupus, Missouri (population 29) unwinds, it’s clear it’s not. Somebody rolls “The biggest smoke I’ve ever seen…I’ll pas out on the floor and sleep until the  morning light.” And it gets better from there.

The second track, Dig, is a biting minor-key blues that goes after the kind of money-grubbing smalltown boss we’ve all had to deal with at some point. Ryan Koenig, moonlighting from Pokey LaFarge’s brilliant pan-Americana band, bolsters the snarling guitar edge in Further From Shore, a tale of drifting a little too far out. Knew You’d Come Around is more optimistic, a wry stoner’s attempt at seducing a girl with soul food and booze.

Rhythm and Blues is a Texas boogie as the Sideshow Tragedy might do it, with the bari sax (of course), rippling minor-key blues harp and a little ghoulabillly. Drummer Andy Rehm’s leadfoot stomp propels Albatross, a noir blues stomp that wouldn’t be out of place in the Legendary Shack Shakers catalog, spiced with some creepily spiraling electric piano.

Everett’s devious sax takes centerstage in the go-go instrumental Garlic Dream. The band hint at doom metal in Gravity, a terrified stoner’s realization of the way objects with varying degrees of mass interact in the cosmos.

The album’s most epic track is Scrapper’s Lament, an amped-up oldschool country ballad, snide testament to the fact that one man’s trash could be something else completely. The album winds up with Staying Away From Joe, an unfashionably uncaffeinated country soul tune spiced with mandolin and fiddle. You’ve heard the tempest in a teaspoon about film and tv characters needing to be likable? It’s hard to imagine anybody not liking this band – anyone with a sense of humor, anyway. And they go well with waffles at two in the morning – it’s true!

Tuneful, Purposeful, Original Acoustic Blues from Rust Dust

Jason Stutts, a.k.a. Rust Dust is a first-class acoustic blues guitarist and a connoisseur of oldtime Americana. He typically plays in open tunings with a slide on a vintage resonator model in the Mississippi delta style, but doesn’t limit himself to that. He sings in a laid-back Midwestern twang rather than trying to fake a southern drawl. His debut album Diviners and Shivs, recorded with an imaginative array of spatially placed mics on the grounds of an upstate New York farm, is streaming at Spotify. He’s become a staple of the similarly first-class Friday night shows at the American Folk Art Museum, where he’s playing the album release show for his new one this Friday, Oct 27 at 5:30 PM.

Stutts bookends the album with a pensive, spaciously bluesy take of Amazing Grace. The second track is the brisk, purposeful Side of the Road Blues, which is over in less than two minutes, like a lot of the songs here: Stutts really doesn’t waste notes!

The plainspoken, melancholy Nothing Hurts Worse is an original folk tune: “I’m a forty-year-old bundle of nerves…my swagger is becoming a swerve,” his narrator laments. Stutts plays the tantalizing, bracing miniature Blackberry Nightmare, a mashup of British folk and country blues, through an amp with the distortion turned all the way up. Then he slowly fingerpicks the surreal, slow Strange Cake, a stoner folk tune: “Hey Strange Cake, why you chasing rabbits you’re never gonna catch?”

By contrast, Heaven to Hell is stark and uneasy, an antiwar/antiviolence number: “Now we got AK’s at home, just for fun,” Stutts dryly observes. The stark Just Can’t Keep From Crying, with the vocals doubling the guitar line, brings to mind delta great Fred McDowell. Coming and Going is a similarly spare banjo instrumental that’s over in barely a minute;

The album’s title track, another really short one, is a bizarrely successful mashup of late-period John Fahey and hip-hop. Stutts also offers a brief take of the hymn Down in the Valley and a surprisingly bristling, gothic version of Wayfaring Stranger with full-on reverb and just the hint of a tremolo effect. Stutts likes to jam, so you can count on him taking these songs to a lot of different places onstage.

Celebrating Resistance and Triumph Over Tyranny at Lincoln Center

For three years now, Lincoln Center has been partnering with Manhattan’s  Maxine Greene High School for Imaginative Inquiry in an annual celebration of freedom fighters from across the decades. Inspired by Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, Thursday night’s annual performance featured “a stellar cast,” as Lincoln Center’s Viviana Benitez put it, playing some powerfully relevant music and reading insightful, inspiring, sometimes incendiary works by activists and authors from the sixteenth century to the present day.

Brianna Thomas raised the bar dauntingly high with the Civil Rights-era Sam Cooke hit A Change Is Gonna Come, guitarist Marvin Sewell playing bottleneck style on the intro for a ringing, rustic, deep blues feel. “I go downtown, and somebody’s always telling me, don’t hang around,” Thomas intoned somberly over Sewell’s terse icepick soul chords. In an era when Eric Garner was murdered because he got too close to a new luxury condo building, that resounded just as mightily as it did in Birmingham in 1964. She picked it up again with a ferociously gritty insistence, the audience adding a final, spontaneous “Yeah!” at the very end.

Later in the performance the duo played a hauntingly hazy, utterly Lynchian take of Strange Fruit. Thomas’ slow, surreal swoops and dives raised the macabre factor through the roof: If there’s any one song for Halloween month, 2017, this was it.

In between, a parade of speakers brought to life a series of fiery condemnations of tyrants and oppression, and widely diverse opinions on how to get rid of them. Staceyann Chin bookended all this with an understatedly sardonic excerpt from Bartolome de las Casas’ grisly account of early conquistadorial genocide, closing with a rousing Marge Piercy piece on how to build a grassroots movement.

Shantel French matter-of-factly voiced Henry George’s insight into how poverty is criminalized, but is actually a form of discrimination. Michael Ealy’s most memorable moment onstage was his emphatic delivery of the irony and ironclad logic in Jermain Wesley Loguen’s famous letter to the slaveowner he escaped during the Civil War: ‘You say you raised me as you raised your own children…did you raise them for the whipping post?”

Geoffrey Arend read Eugene Debs’ address for his 1918 sedition sentencing, optimism in the face of a prison sentence and a corrupt system doomed to collapse  Laura Gomez voiced the anguish and indignity of a longtime resident of Vieques, Puerto Rico who’d seen his neighbors harassed and killed by drunken marines and errant bombs dropped in practice runs (this was in 1979, before the island was rendered uninhabitable by the same depleted uranium dropped on Afghanistan and Iraq). Considering that the President of the United States has castigated the people of this disaster-stricken part of the world for being a drain on the Federal budget, this packed a real wallop. We can only hope this latest incident helps the wheels of impeachment move a little faster.

Brian Jones read from a witheringly cynical pre-Emancipation Frederick Douglass speech on what the Fourth of July means to a slave, and also Martin Luther King’s emphatically commonsensical analysis of the racism and injustice inherent in the Vietnam War draft. Aasif Mandvi brought out all the black humor in Brooklyn College professor Moustafa Bayoumi’s account of being besieged by off-campus rightwing nutjobs. And joined by incisive, puristically bluesy guitarist Giancarlo Castillo, songwriter Ani Cordero sang a venomous take of Dylan’s Masters of War and an understatedly passionate, articulate version of Lydia Mendoza’s 1934 border ballad Mal Hombre, sad testimony to the fact that Mexican immigrants have been demonized long before Trump.

The next free performance at Lincoln Center’s Broadway atrium space just north of 62nd St. is on Oct 19 at 7:30 PM featuring artsy Mexican trip-hop band Ampsersan. Getting to the space a little early is a good way to make sure you get a seat, since these events tend to sell out.

Everybody’s Favorite Americana Harmony Trio, Red Molly, Make a Triumphant Return to City Winery

Is there another Americana band with as individualistic and spine-tingling a blend of voices as Red Molly? Actually yes – Bobtown, who played the Brooklyn Americana Festival on Saturday. More about them later.

Red Molly’s first New York show in two years last night at City Winery was epic. The harmony trio of dobro player Abbie Gardner, guitarists Molly Venter and Laurie MacAllister really give you a lot of bang for your buck. In two long sets, bolstered by bassist Craig Akin and Roosevelt Dime guitarist/percussionist Eben Pariser, they played a wickedly fun, dynamic mix of originals and a bunch of choice covers.

Each group member has a solo album in progress: MacAllister fretted about how the trio would be able to “shoehorn the songs into a Red Molly show,” but everything worked seamlessly. As usual, the women took turns on lead vocals, often in the same number. Venter took centerstage on one of the best of the new songs, Cold Black Water, a portrait of an indomitable single mother making a new start on the rugged Oregon coast, rising from an enigmatic, quiet suspense on the verse to a ferociously anthemic payoff on the chorus. Another standout was a hauntingly muted ballad by Gardner, told from the point of view of a war veteran’s wife who’s watching her wounded warrior trying to keep himself together.

And the voices were sublime. Gardner has jazz bloodlines and Venter is a connoisseur of Texas Americana, with blue notes peeking out from every secret corner. MacAllister contrasts with a disarmingly direct delivery. And while there was plenty of the usual banter between the group and what seemed to be a sold-out crowd, MacAllister came across as the ringleader in this merry band. Introducing a rousing number inspired by a gig in Alaska that wound up with a dude in the crowd throwing a taxidermied fox onto the stage, she related how, for a woman in a state with a gender imbalance, “The odds were good, but the goods were odd.”

The best song of the night was When It’s All Wrong. Gardner’s dobro slid and slithered through every macabre passing tone in the scale as her voice channeled a bitterness and menace that Lana Del Rey and all the other wannabe noir pinups would die to have written.                   

The covers were choice, beginning with the famous Richard Thompson tune from which they take their name. Gardner drew lots of chuckles with a sly little dobro lick on the intro to Crazy, which Venter sang with a nuance that would have made Patsy Cline proud. The three-part harmonies, backed by just bass, on The Fever were a lot of fun, while the group’s most calmly rapturous moment was their a-capella take of their original May I Suggest. As long as Red Molly are still together and touring – something that didn’t seem likely a couple of years ago – maybe, despite the madmen in the White House, we are truly living in the best years of our lives. The darkest times sometimes produce the greatest art. Red Molly’s current tour continues on Oct 6 at at the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley, CA; advance tix are $25.

Next month is a particularly good one at City Winery, Just for starters, Willie Nile – the world’s most obvious choice to sing Dylan – does that on the 10th at 8 PM: tix are expensive, $30, but this could be an awful lot of fun. And then there’s a killer twinbill on the 15th at 8 with blue-eyed soulstress and fiery guitarslinger Miss Tess followed by one of the great songwriters in noir Americana, Eilen Jewell, for $20.

And Gardner has a solo show at Pete’s on Oct 17 at 8:30 PM

Joshua Garcia Brings His Harrowing, Relevant Tunesmithing to a Cozy West Village Spot

When describing a singer-songwriter, the term “troubadour” is typically misused to the most ridiculous extent possible. Most of the culprits are part of the corporate publicity  machine, or those who still kiss up to it, probably because they’ve been kissing up to it for so long that they’ve forgotten that it has nothing left for them. But that’s another story.

In the Middle Ages, the troubadours – a French word – were the CNN of Europe. Making their way precariously from town to town, through thickets of bandits – with whom they undoubtedly shared more than we’ll ever know – they carried news, and rumors, and often outright falsehoods about what was going on in the wider world. For some mead and a meal and a bed, they’d keep the night going with drinking songs and sex songs, and maybe there’d be a jam session at the end. Relics of this ancient ritual persist in bars around the world.

The obvious conclusion is that in the age of CNN, there’s hardly a need for troubadours. But in an era when so much news is no more reliable than the apocryphal tales spread by well-traveled, hardworking guys picking up bits and pieces of information here and there and weaving them into a semi-plausible whole, maybe we need to rethink that conclusion. That’s where somebody like Joshua Garcia comes in.

Garcia sings in a strong, confident baritone that harks back to the more purposeful folk voices of the 1950s folk revival: in other words, he isn’t trying to be Dylan or, for that matter, John Mayer. Likewise, his guitar picking is steady, and fluid, and fluent in several bluesy styles. He writes in images: rather than telling you what’s going on, he gives you an audio movie to figure out. He’s got a deadpan sense of humor that can be very grim, which makes sense considering who’s in the Oval Office right now.

At his show at the American Folk Art Museum a couple of weeks ago, you could have heard a pin drop. “I’m not used to playing for so many of you,” he grinned, but that will change. His songs are topical, but in the style of a Spike Lee movie rather than a news program. The best one was That’s the Way You Drop a Bomb, a matter-of-fact, picturesque account of what the crew of the Enola Gay were told to expect on their way to and back from killing hundreds of thousands of innocent Japanese civilians. An old story, no question, but one with immense relevance when fire and fury drip from greedy lips at White House news conferences.

Garcia opened his set with an aphoristic catalog of things that he was going to buy. Some were concrete, many of them were grandiose, and eventually he came to the point where he’d mention a few of the things he wasn’t going to buy. Those, he’d leave to you. Guess what they were.

He also played a couple of brooding narratives about immigrant life. The first and more allusive one looked at the dismal daily routine of his Mexican-American immigrant grandmother, a California factory worker in the 1950s. The more harrowing one, a chronicle of spousal abuse was unselfconsciously tender and dedicated to his mom. Obviously, domestic violence is hardly the exclusive domain of immigrants or working people, but there’s no question that societies where prosperity is not monopolized by a robber baron class have lower rates of violent crime. Garcia didn’t say any of that outright: he let his song speak for itself. He closed the set a-cappella, a brave move that worked like a charm on the crowd.

His next gig is a short set at 7 PM on Sept 2 at Caffe Vivaldi followed eventually at 8 by Jeremy Aaron, a good acoustic guitarist who writes socially aware topical songs, and then clever, playful swing/oldtimey Americana accordionist-singer Erica Mancini at 8:30. 

And the weekly Free Music Fridays series at the American Folk Art Museum – Manhattan’s best and arguably most popular listening room for pretty much all styles of acoustic music – resumes on September 22 at 6 PM with acoustic Americana tunesmith Rodrigo Aranjuelo. and gothic Americana duo Thoughtdream