New York Music Daily

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Tag: blues

Guitarslinger Phil Gammage Goes Back to His Dark Blues Roots Again

Phil Gammage may be best known as the lead guitarist in legendary CB’s era postpunk band Certain General, but he also has a substantial body of work as a bandleader. Over the years, he’s done everything from dark Americana to electric blues. With his latest album, It’s All Real Good – streaming at Spotify – the guitarslinger/crooner revisits the spare acoustic sound of his Live at Little Water Radio ep from a couple of years ago. He’s playing the release show tomorrow night, Sept 5 at 9 PM at 11th St. Bar. Then on the 9th he’s at Shrine at 9, and on the 30th he’s at Cowgirl Seahorse in the South Street Seaport at 7.

The album’s opening track, Naked in the Rain is a stripped down acoustic bossa, Kenny Margolis’ accordion and Michele Butler’s backing vocals filtering through a song that’s kind of low-key considering that it’s about dancing around nude.

With David Fleming’s chuffing, reverbtone blues harp, the title track is a sarcastic, bawdy blues that draws a straight line back to Sonny Boy Williamson – or even further. Likewise, Dancing on Top of the World is a sardonic, Waits-ish barhopping narrative. Luck Don’t Pass Us By comes across as an acoustic take on the apocalyptic gutter blues of 80s bands like the Gun Club.

Fueled by Margolis’ darkly bluesy spirals, Hellcat Magpie is a colorfully creepy circus-rock waltz. Then skinny Elvis meets Jimmy Reed in the muted, crepuscular Second Time Around.

Wandering Stars has a slow southwestern gothic sway, while Give Away is slow, spare and Orbisonesque. Gammage closes the album with Let Love Begin, his counterintuitive chords over Tony Mann’s shuffling drums. Gammage’s voice has grown a little flintier over the years, and the music here is quieter than most of his back catalog, but he can still conjure up as much distant menace as ever.

Cedric Burnside Plays His Individualistic Take on a Classic Mississippi Blues Style at Lincoln Center

Early during his show at Lincoln Center last night, guitarist Cedric Burnside related a story he’d originally heard from his grandfather, iconic hill country bluesman RL Burnside. See, there was this guy who was twenty-two years, still living with his folks. His parents strongly suggest that it’s time for him to find a wife and move out. So he meets a girl and brings her home. Dad takes one look at her and says, “You can’t marry that girl. She’s your sister. But don’t tell your mama, she doesn’t know.”

So the guy goes out and brings another girl home: same deal. At the end of the week, the guy’s mother starts giving him a hard time about not finding a girl and moving out. At this point, the guy spills the beans and tells her what his dad said. His mom’s response is “You can marry either one of those girls if you want, because he ain’t your daddy.”

Much as the younger Burnside draws on a hundred years of revelry and rustic party music, he has his own distinctive sound. Where his “big daddy,” as he called him, played with a careening sway and built a wall of sound with his guitar, this Burnside has a much funkier, incisive, rhythmic attack and a no-nonsense, direct vocal style. And he also plays acoustic, opening the show solo, utilizing an open tuning for a number that was like the source code to early 70s boogie rock, his vocals doubling the catchy bassline at the turnaround.

He followed with a spare, percussive take of RL Burnside’s snide dismissal of a backstabber, Just Like a Woman. He built the next tune by getting the guitar humming with slow hypnotic hammer-on riff, then he’d hit a driving downward progression. He put on his slide for Feel Like Going Home, a more driving, passionate update on the Muddy Waters acoustic version.

Burnside went back to hard-hitting, spare mode for Life Can Be So Easy and its chorus of “Summertime is hard, it’s hard to stay cool,” something Mississippians know a little bit about. Then he brought drummer Brett Benton up and switched to a Les Paul copy for We Made It, sticking with his usual percussive attack, bassline alternating with spare chords: where this guy comes from, this stuff is dance music.

Beyond the open tunings and hypnotic vamping, hill country blues has its own rhythms: bouncier than your typical shuffle but not quite straight-up funk either, and his next couple of numbers worked that hard-swinging style. In the ba-bump tune after that, he revealed that he doesn’t take every gig he’s offered. Going back to the RL Burnside catalog, he did Going Down South with a lot more punch and incisive riffage than the original.

After a thumping warning to “keep your hands off that girl, she don’t belong to you,” he switched to Strat for a number that on the surface was about not missing out – there was another level there, too, the kind of things you might do on a Holly Springs front porch. Meanwhile, it was strange that nobody was up dancing like crowds usually do here. Where were the kids?

The next show at the atrium space at Lincoln Center on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is next Thursday, August 22 at 7:30 PM with whirlwind tropical accordion star El Rey Vallenato Beto Jamaica and his band. Get there early if you’re going because he’s a force of nature and this show will sell out fast – and it’s free!

Rare 1969 Live Recordings From a Hall of Fame Caliber Blues Festival Lineup Now Available on Vinyl

Half a century ago, Michigan blues fan Jim Fishel brought a low-budget analog tape recorder, a handful of cassettes – and a couple of fresh sets of bulky C batteries – to the Ann Arbor Blues Festival. One can only wonder if he was aware just how much history he was going to capture. The highlights of those field recordings have just been released on vinyl for the first time ever on vinyl, in two volumes streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a goldmine of rare and often unusual performances by some of the greatest blues artists of all time.

The sound quailty varies. A handful of numbers – including J. B. Hutto savagely chopping his way through the Elmore James soundalike Too Much Alcohol, and Jimmy “Fast Fingers” Dawkins swinging I Wonder Why – are so trebly that when the guitars are cooking, with the reverb all the way up, it’s painful to listen to them at high volume on headphones. But others are surprisingly good quality – digital tweaking is most likely responsible for a surprising amount of bass presence. And many of the performances are amazing. These artists aren’t pandering to a stoned hippie audience – they’re kicking out the jams just like they’d been doing for decades on the chitlin circuit.

Barrelhouse pianist Roosevelt Sykes’ hilarious hokum blues Dirty Mother For Ya – which he proudly recalls recording for Decca Records in 1934 – opens the album. Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup contributes a raw, fresh take of So Glad You’re Mine, just guitar and drums. Junior Wells sends a shout to his blues harp mentor, the late Sonny Boy Williamson, with an expansive performance of Help Me. B.B. King sings a wrenchingly impassioned version of I’ve Got a Mind to Give Up Living after introducing it with a long, unexpectedly upbeat solo.

Mississippi Fred McDowell’s shuffling, twangy slide guitar interpretation of the folk staple John Henry turns out to be more about jaggedly leaping riffage than the story itself. “I plays it different from other folks, you know, I plays it so you can understand it,” he deadpans. Longtime Muddy Waters pianist Pinetop Perkins shows off a punishing left hand in his signature boogie-woogie instrumental.

“The Original Howlin’ Wolf and His Orchestra” get seventeen minutes to seemingly make up a couple of tunes on the spot – and assail an unresponsive sound guy to “Wake up over there!” Hearing the Wolf backed by brass is quite a change, and lead guitarist Hubert Sumlin’s searing solo reminds why he was Jimi Hendrix’ favorite player.

A suave, thirtysomething Otis Rush delivers the elegant Great Migration chronicle So Many Roads. Muddy Waters, in rare form as a showman, tells the crowd he’s going to take them back to the 40s – when he’d run out of a barbershop after a pretty woman on the street – then takes his time with Long Distance Call.

Interestingly, it’s harpist Charlie Musselwhite and band who veer the closest to jazz here, with the jump blues instrumental Moovin’ and Groovin’. T-Bone Walker is all over the place but just as sophisticated throughout a careening, eleven-minute Stormy Monday, then returns to do the same behind Big Mama Thornton’s unleashed wail on Ball and Chain.

Magic Sam turns in one of the night’s most feral numbers with I Feel So Good (I Wanna Boogie). Shirley Griffith’s spare, precise take of Jelly Jelly Blues is the biggest throwback to the old delta style here. One of only two acoustic performances here is from Big Joe Williams, whose high-voltage Juanita strangely doesn’t seem to grab the audience.

Sam Lay’s version of Key to the Highway doesn’t take many chances with the Muddy Waters original. The band follow Lightning Hopkins’ unpredictable changes in Mojo Hand with aplomb; then James Cotton works the dynamics of his blues harp instrumental Off the Wall up and down for fifteen increasingly interminable minutes. The album winds up with Son House prefacing his iconic Death Letter Blues with some oldtime blues history, then giving an impressively shivery treatment, solo on acoustic with his slide.

Obviously, you can’t expect a field recording to be perfect, sonically or otherwise, and this isn’t. Clifton Chenier was every bit as proficient at blues as he was at zydeco, so the cajun ballad Tu M’a Promis is out of place. A pretty pointless Luther Allison interlude is haphazardly edited, and the Big Mojo Ellum tune could have been left on the cutting room floor. The piano goes further and further out of tune, intros and outros get chopped off, there’s audience chitchat and a couple of quaint moments where the tape stops and then restarts. Still, for diehard electric blues fans, this is a must-hear and it’s a great introduction for kids who’re just getting into the music.

Yet Another Grim, Brilliantly Lyrical, Oldtime-Flavored Album From Curtis Eller

Charismatic banjo player and bandleader Curtis Eller is yet another first-class songwriter who got brain-drained out of New York by the the real estate speculators’ blitzkrieg. But he’s never stopped writing dark, witheringly insightful, brutally funny folk noir songs. His latest album A Poison Melody – streaming at his music page – is his hardest-rocking record yet, and it’s as grimly relevant as ever.

The title track, Radiation Poison sets the stage. Don’t let the bluster of those of jump blues-inspired horns fool you: this is about an invisible killer. Eller’s references may be Nagasaki and the New Mexico atom bomb tests, but in the post-Fukushima era, the song has even more relevance. “Everybody’s been exposed,” Eller warns.

Eller introduces the dirty-water garage rock stomp of No Soap Radio as “A no-bullshit story about what happened in ’63 – how come it’s always Texas when there’s a murder on tv?” William Dawson’s vibraphone lingers in the background with the torchy harmony vocals of Dana Marks and Stacy Wolfson on the album’s title cut, a doomed soul ballad.

Jack Fleishman’s loose-limbed drums propel Union Hall, a New Orleans-spiced romp alluding to the 1968 Detroit riots, but with current-day irony:

I’m gonna call the police on my neighbor
I’m gonna take my pistol downtown
The Constitution said I can shoot what I want
Everybody get down

Nobody is surprised by the die-off in These Birds, a stark eco-disaster parable. Pay the Band, a big audience favorite at shows, has gospel piano from Tom Merrigan. As Eller sees it, money is like “morphine on the front line.” And, “You gotta pay the band if you wanna watch those losers dance.” It gets even better from there: the punchlines are too good to give away.

The gospel atmosphere is more subdued and elegaic in Lenny Bruce. Cowles plays flute over Eller’s spare, steady, ominous banjo in Waist Deep in the Big Muddy, a caustically aphoristic World War II basic training parable in period-perfect blues vernacular.

After that, Eller does a diptych about a riot; the sly introduction signals the twisted jubilation of the second, a cynical reminder how calamities are always heaven for profiteers. He winds up the album with the sobering No Word to Choose, Hugh Crumley’s steady bass holding the center amid subtly tricky syncopation, up to a final conflagration. In the post-3/11, post-9/11 era, we need clear-eyed guys like Eller more than ever.

Slashing Blues and Klezmer and Noir Sounds with Book of J at Barbes This Month

Saturday evening at Barbes, it was an awful lot of fun to witness the contrast in styles between guitarists Jeremiah Lockwood and Steve Ulrich. Lockwood, who’s one-half of Book of J and also leads the Sway Machinery, is a live wire, tremolo-picking sharply feathery flurries, plucking out jaggedly incisive phrases and plaintive blues licks on his vintage National Steel model. Ulrich, the film composer and Big Lazy leader was a predator waiting for his prey, cool and calm and distantly resonant, then in a flash going in for the kill with his Les Paul.

He was the special guest at Book of J’s weekly 6 PM Saturday residency at Barbes this month, which is no surprise considering that he and Lockwood have been conjuring up plenty of sinisterly spiky sounds in an on-and-off collaboration that dates back to the early zeros. Rocking a classic punk rock mohawk, Book of J frontwoman Jewlia Eisenberg joined them for one of several lesbian Jewish ballads – “There’s lots of them,” she grinned, singing with triumph and passion over Lockwood’s gritty, chromatically-fueled chords and Ulrich’s signature, lingering noir accents.

Classic Barbes moment. There aren’t many venues left in New York where you can see this kind of cross-pollination creating deliciously new musical hybrids, even if they only last for a few minutes.

The rest of the set was just as diverse. Watching Ulrich play spare, purposeful, purist oldschool Chicago blues was an unexpected treat; then again, the guy can play pretty much anything. Likewise, Lockwood moved methodically from hypnotically emphatic, Malian-inspired phrasing to a ripsnorting cadenza or three and gentle, poignant jangle. The two guitarists went into allusive noir with Mood Indigo, then took another stab at the Ellington catalog, edging their way into a take of Caravan that was more of a slow, wary procession through the desert, keeping an eye out for US drones and Soviet warplanes. Their version of an uneasy Big Lazy big-sky theme had the same menace just over the horizon.

Eisenberg and Lockwood’s most riveting number together was a gorgeous klezmer tune in the Middle Eastern freygish mode, written by a famous Argentine singer and member of what was for a long time the largest Yiddish-speaking community outside of Europe and later, Israel. Lockwood introduced a slower, more allusively rapturous number as being written by an early 20th century cantor who’d chosen his daughter as his successor. That move didn’t go over with the synagogue elders, so the cantor quit. “When somebody dies, where do you say kaddish?” a friend once asked the guy. “In my garden,” he replied.

Book of J return to Barbes tomorrow night, July 20 at 6 with special guest Brian Chase on drums, playing from a new song cycle based on the work of Yiddish poet Celia Dropkin. Big Lazy are back at Barbes as well on July 26 at 10; Singer/guitarist Pierre de Gaillande’s edgy parlor pop band Bad Reputation – who continue to build a rich catalog of English translations of songs by badass 1940s-70s French songwriter Georges Brassens – open the night at 8.

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.

Catherine Russell Brings Her Edgy Retro Swing and Blues Reinventions to Birdland

Catherine Russell has made a career out of bringing edge and freshness to old swing jazz tunes both popular and obscure. Much as she’s often mined the so-called “great American songbook” for much of it, she and her band steer clear of cliches. Other than the present, the time period they most closely evoke is the early 30s, before swing got watered down for segregated white audiences. And where so many other jazz singers mimic icons from decades past, Russell long ago developed a resolute, purposefully individualistic style, with a deep if not always immediately present blues influence – something you might expect from someone whose pianist father Luis was Louis Armstrong’s musical director. Her new album Alone Together – which hasn’t hit her Spotify channel yet – is just out. She and her similarly purist group are celebrating the release with a stand at Birdland this Feb 12-16, with sets at 9 and 11 PM. You can get in for thirty bucks.

They open the new record with the title track: ultimately, it’s an optimistic ballad, but both Russell and the band anchor it with a steady, gritty swing, pianist Mark Shane and trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso ramping up an underlying, steely bluesiness. Likewise, Russell and Shane max out the irony in You Turned the Tables on Me, over bassist Tal Ronen and drummer Mark McLean’s steady stroll.

When Did You Leave Heaven has a plush string section, a subtle 12/8 rhythm and a spare, spacious soul solo from musical director/guitarist Matt Munisteri. They reinvent Early in the Morning as a barrelhouse piano cha-cha, punctuated with Mark Lopeman’s tenor sax and Munisteri’s wry Chicago blues solo. Then they turn Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby into a wary New Orleans stroll with a terse, edgy horn chart, probably the last thing Louis Jordan ever imagined for this song – at least until Kellso cuts loose with his mute.

Russell matches sass to knowing sarcasm while the band romp through You Can’t Pull the Wool Over My Eyes, Lopeman and Kellso trading off with trombonist John Allred with some lively dixieland. Her angst is more distant in Shake Down the Stars, Shane’s emphatic solo giving way to Kellso’s airier, more wistful lines. Then the group take their time with a gorgeously bittersweet, take of the blues ballad I Wonder, lowlit by Munisteri’s tremoloing guitar and resonant washes of brass.

The real gem here is the innuendo-packed hokum blues He May Be Your Dog But He’s Wearing My Collar, a 1923 hit for singer Rosa Henderson, who would no doubt approve of Russell’s defiance over Shane’s stride piano and Munisteri’s shivery slide work. The band romp through the sudden tempo shifts of Errand Girl for Rhythm and then flip the script with a steady, darkly ambered take of How Deep Is the Ocean. Likewise, they keep a purposeful slink going through their take of I Only Have Eyes for You.

They wind up the album with a tasty version of You’re Not the Only Oyster in the Stew, with a nod over the shoulder at those great 1920s Bessie Smith/James P. Johnson collaborations. Russell has made a bunch of good records over the years but this might be the best of them all.

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.

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.