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Lyrical, Mesmerizing Psychedelia From Rose Thomas Bannister in Williamsburg Saturday Night

Psychedelic rock bands aren’t known for searing, literary lyrics. It’s even rarer to find a psychedelic group with a charismatic woman out in front. Likewise, it’s just as uncommon for a woman songwriter with an acoustic guitar to be leading a great psychedelic band. Saturday night at the brand-new Wonders of Nature in Williamsburg, the crowd got all that from Rose Thomas Bannister and her mesmerizing backing unit.

She and lead guitarist Bob Bannister are the closest thing we have to an American Richard & Linda Thompson – except that these two don’t hit each other over the head with things (or at least it doesn’t seem so). Her career dates back to the past decade in Nebraska, where she sharpened her hauntingly spare, broodingly allusive “great plains gothic” songcraft. His dates back a decade before to post-no wave bands like The Scene Is Now, who are still going strong.

With a wry grin, he bowed the strings of his Strat for “ambience,” as he put it, as the undulating, enigmatic opening number, Sandhll slowly coalesced, drummer Ben Engle’s subtle cymbals mingling with bassist Debby Schwartz’s nimbly melodic, trebly, punchy countermelodies and violinist Concetta Abbate’s ethereally tectonic washes. In this context, The Real Penelope and its achingly Homeric references were reinvented as a sort of mashup of the Grateful Dead’s China Cat Sunflower and Rubber Soul-era Beatles.

Appropriating religious imagery and turning it inside out is a device that goes back centuries – Rumi, for example – but Rose Thomas Bannister is unsurpassed at it. The best song of the night was a brand-new one, Heaven Is a Wall, a prime example. She opened it with a hypnotic, cirlcing fingerpicked riff, then it morphed into a sarcastic march as she let loose a litany of fire-and-brimstone imagery straight out of the Mike Pence speechbook. Likewise, the gritty, swinging In the Alley and its understatedly Tom Waits-like tableau.

The rest of the set rose and fell, from Sutherland, a misty, ominous murder ballad, to the jauntily sarcastic Like Birds Do (a subtle Macbeth reference); the grim, claustrophobic narrative Jephthah’s Daughter, and Houston, an escape anthem recast as late-60s blue-eyed soul. Terse, sinewy, slinky Strat lines blended with stately violin, leaping and swooping bass and Engle’s low-key propulsion. They closed with their one cover of the night, a pulsing, emphatic take of Ivor Cutler’s Women of the World: Bannister knows as well as anyone else that the future of this country is female.

Cellist Leah Coloff opened with an acerbic solo set of her own, a mix of stark blues phrasing, edgy Patti Smith-style anthems and bracing detours toward free jazz and the avant garde. Franklin Bruno and his power trio the Human Hands closed the night with a set of haphazardly punchy, catchy, sardonically lyrical tunes that brought to mind acts as diverse as Cheap Trick, Big Star and the Dream Syndicate. Afterward, Bob Bannister spun a mix of obscure 70s dancefloor tracks over the PA; everybody danced.

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A Killer Triplebill Foreshadows a Great Psychedelic Show on the LES

This Thursday, March 30 at 8 PM there’s a rare, intimate performance by second-wave Los Angeles psychedelic legends the Jigsaw Seen at Bowery Electric. They’re followed by the much louder New York Junk, whose retro sound moves forward in time another ten years to the Max’s Kansas City early punk rock scene. Cover is a ridiculously cheap, CBGB-era $8.

The Jigsaw Seen’s latest album, streaming at Spotify, is aptly titled For the Discriminating Completist. It’s a collection of B-sides and rarities. There’s an album of new material in the works, and frontman Dennis Davison has also recently immersed himself in a brand-new dark acoustic project, Witchfinder Witch, a duo with New York folk noir icon Lorraine Leckie. Speaking of which, she has an incendiary new protest single, America Weeping, just out and available as a free download at Bandcamp

The two made their debut at Pete’s Candy Store on a Saturday night in January, Davison on acoustic guitar and Leckie on piano. The highlight of that gig was Cave Canem, a witheringly lyrical anthem that casts the history of dogs – and centuries of canine abuse – as a metaphor for humans’ crimes against their own species.

A few days later at Maxwell’s, the duo were the centerpiece of what’s arguably been the best triplebill of the year. Debby Schwartz opened the show, jangling adn clanging through a series of arcane British folk turnings on her hollowbody Gretsch, bolstered by Bob Bannister’s nuanced, artfully jeweled, Richard Thompson-esque Strat work, Rose Thomas Bannister supplying lush harmonies and percussion. Through neo-Britfolk and more dreampop-oriented material, Schwartz sang with her her soaring, diamond-cutter delivery, dreaming New York City in the middle of LA and finally closing with a stunning take of the psych-folk anthem Hills of Violent Green.

By now, Witchfinder Witch had shaken off whatever early jitters they might have had: they’d come to conquer. Davison spun bittersweet, pun-infused psych pop gems weighing the pros and cons of clinical depression (do it right and you get tons of songs out of it) and a couple of darkly allusive, mystically-tinged co-writes with Leckie. She charmed and seduced the crowd with blue-flame red-light cabaret tune or two, a jaunty S&M piano number that was so deadpan that it was creepily plausible, and a mysterious, hypnotic folk noir tableau that could have been about heroin, or simply death itself. The crowd was rapt.

The Pretty Babies headlined, putting a deliriously fun coda on what had been a low-key, entrancing evening up to then. Professional subversive and rockstar impersonator Tammy Faye Starlite – who’s channeling Nico on Thursdays in April at 7:30 PM at Pangea – led the world’s funniest Blondie cover band through a stampeding take of Dreaming as well as a surprising number of deeper cuts from the band’s early days when they rocked harder. If memory serves right, Tammy took a hilariously politically-fueled detour that eventually drove Call Me off the rails. Everybody in the band has a funny, punny Blondie name. Was bassist Monica Falcone – who absolutely nailed the wry disco lines in Heart of Glass – newly christened as Chrissie Stein? It’s hard to remember who else everybody else was: Heidi Lieb and Keith Hartel as Frank Infantes separated at birth, and expert standins for Jimmy Destri on keys and Clem Burke on drums. Hearing the Pretty Things and watching the crowd on their feet and bopping along was a jab in the ribs that said, hey, the original outfit was pretty good too. 

Microtonal Merrymaking at the Mayflower

It was a treat to get to hear Concetta Abbate on Sunday at Mayflower Bar in Fort Greene. Abbate is best known as a violinist and composer of beguiling chamber-pop miniatures, but she’s also a magically nuanced, expressive singer. Lately she’s been working on finishing up her Master’s at Columbia, so she hasn’t been playing out a lot.

This time was a rapturous, mostly improvised duo set with Kyle Farrell, who played a marimba-like instrument invented by Skip Laplante. Its series of eighteen evenly tuned metal pipes covered the span of an octave, laid flat atop a styrofoam box doing double duty as resonator and carrying case. Guitar maven Bob Bannister, who was in the house, called it a styrophone, and the name stuck.

Abbate began the show by improvising gracefully strolling melodies. singing and then riffing on a series of Rumi poems from an older and almost surrealistically literal English translation. Meanwhile, Farrell kept the otherworldly, microtonal ripples and pings going, occasionally using a daf frame drum for extra texture or rhythm. Later in the set, he removed a handful of pipes to pare down the available tones for what ended up sounding both more western and more Asian, depending on how close the harmonies were.

Singing in Spanish, Abbate also treated the crowd to a couple of Peruvian tonadas, one a plaintive traditional number and the other an original inspired by a training ritual employed by shamanic healers. After the set was over, impresario Rose Thomas Bannister – who has one of the deepest address books in New York and runs the weekly music series here – took a playful turn on the mallets. The show this coming Sunday, Feb 19 stats at around 2 PM and features excellent cellist/composer Leah Coloff, who’s best known for her Lou Reed collaboration but has an impressively eclectic solo catalog as well.

Darkly Psychedelic Art-Rocker Ember Schrag Opens for a Horror Film Thursday Night in Gowanus

Every summer, Rooftop Films puts on as eclectic and interesting an indie film series as you can find in New York: dramas, documentaries, animation, shorts and student films are just a part of the picture. There’s a creepily enticing screening this Thursday, June 16 on the roof of the old American Can Company buildlng at 232 3rd St in Gowanus; the closest train is the R at Union St. Doors are at 8 PM and haunting, intensely lyrical psychedelic songwriter Ember Schrag plays at 8:30, followed by David Farrier and Dylan Reeve’s creepy suspense thriller Tickled. Cover is $15; there will be beer afterward.

Schrag’s most recent gig was a secret show in Brooklyn earlier this month, a rare stripped-down duo set with guitar polymath Bob Bannister, in the middle of a triplebill that was pure magic. Witchily theatrical art-rockers Goddess opened the night with a gently twinkling pavane, then a spare, summery lullaby, then picked up the pace with an insistently mystical British folk-influenced anthem. Then the band played uneasy washes of ambience while frontwoman Fran Pado – making her stage debut as an instrumentalist on both keys and cuatro – related a spooky story about an evil old suburban New Jesey woman who snatches any and all balls directed, accidentally or otherwise, into her driveway. No spoilers here: suffice it to say that the child narrator of the horror story ends up in the old hag’s basement.

Pado went into her misterioso low register over more atmospherics on the next number as one-string violinist Tamalyn Miller added sepulchral, flitting swoops and dives. The band likes epics and suites, and kept going with a live loop of tradeoffs between Miller’s eerie wafts of sound, multi-instrumentalist Andy Newman’s glimmering minimalist keys, while Bannister – doing double duty this evening – held it down with terse fingerpicking. The latter part of the show drew on plainchant as much as Pat Garrett/Billy the Kid era Dylan, winding up with the bittersweetly optimistic folk-rock anthem Heaven, the title track to the band’s latest album, then a concluding benediction of sorts.

Schrag opened with an uneasily swaying blues, Bannister playing slide and then hitting his pedal for a vintage 60s reverb effect, almost like a repeater box. Schrag’s lyrics are enigmatic, packed with metaphors and allusions to literature, mythology and the Old Testament. All this carefully cached imagery may have been part and parcel of an upbringing amongst Christian zealots that she finally escaped, driving off into the sunset with little more than her collection of samizdat secular cassette tapes. She’s got an absolutely brilliant, Macbeth-themed album in the can, recorded last year, which if released then would have topped the list of the year’s beat albums here. She played several of those numbers, first a low-key take of the allusively venomous Lady M.

The crowd was silent and rapt as the duo jangled and slunk through Like Birds Do, a bouncy tune packed with literary allusions and the kind of muted wrath that pervades much of Schrag’s recent work, which she finally let loose at the end, sailing up to the top of her register. By contrast, The Real Penelope was a bittersweetly Beatlesque, epically psychedelic “love song in disguise,” as she put it: no spoilers here. The highlight of the night might have been Iowa, a starkly direct, hypnotically crescendoing singalong anthem that sort of turns its fire-and-brimstone imagery inside out: the true believers of the Midwest seldom get hit with a storm as mighty as this one.

Guitarist David Grubbs headlined. He’s got a brand-new vinyl album out, and played several numbers from it. He’s one of the most distinctive and individualistic six-string players out there. Solo on Strat, methodically and hypnotically, he made his way through a mostly instrumental set that drew on Indian ragas, film music and Americana as well as 20th century minimalism. The lingeirng, tersely echoing opening instrumental diptych set the tone for the rest of the night, a deep-sky high-plains raga with allusions to both the Beatles and Meddle-era Pink Floyd trailing like comet dust in the distance as a chromatic menace loomed in and finally took centerstage.

Grubbs’ music knows no limits, utilizing the totality of his axe’s sonic range, from the bottom to the very top of the fretboard, often at the same time. How he managed to get so many strange and disquieting harmonies without using an unorthodox tuning was a clinic in thinking outside the box: it’s hard to imagine a guitarist in the crowd not going home afterward, plugging in and trying to figure out what Grubbs was up to.

He built another deep-space tableau out of sparsely echoing variations on a single dramatic blues overture riff, then mashed up Yardbirds-era Jimmy Page with Steve Ulrich noir, no small achievement. From there he sliced and diced an anthemic Britfolk tune spun through the spacerock of the Church or Marty Willson-Piper. His lone vocal number blended catchy folk-rock with tinges of jazz. There’s more tha a little irony in that the best triplebill of 2016 was a private, by-invite-only, quasi house concert. Catch some of this and a promising movie too in Gowanus this Thursday night.

Ember Schrag Brings Her Ever More Psychedelic Tunesmithing to Union Pool

Isn’t it strange that there aren’t more women in psychedelic rock? Sure, there was Grace Slick; lately, Marissa Nadler has gone deep into Pink Floyd style art-rock, and Marianne Dissard – who has a characteristically brilliant ep out this year – also has a psychedelic side. Here in New York we have Ember Schrag, who got her start as a self-styled Great Plains Gothic tunesmith. These days she’s been fleshing out her stark, spare earlier material with lush orchestration and plenty of room for purposeful improvisation. Her band, with Bob Bannister on lead guitar, Debby Schwartz on bass and Gary Foster on drums, is one of this city’s most visually interesting outfits. Fresh off her tour of European festivals in Alec K Redfearn & the Eyesores – with whom she plays organ – Schrag is doing a rare duo show with Bannister on October 18 at 4 PM outdoors at Union Pool for free.

Her show with her band at Hifi Bar this past July was typical. Foster, who draws on a jazz background, played the role of sonic architect. One minute he’d be playing with bundles, the next minute brushes, then mallets, finally switching to sticks as the show picked up with a straight-ahead garage rock stomp for a few minutes. Sometimes he’d be rocking a bundle and a mallet, pinging the bells of the cymbals or building up to a big whoooooosh. Schwartz is the Secretary of Entertainment in this project, slipsliding up and down the frets of her Musicmaster bass with a joyously slinky attack: she plays with a pick and is a real hard hitter, essesntially the second lead guitarist in this band. She also handles the high vocal harmonies, with an unselfconsciously fiery, penetrating delivery.

Bannister is the magician in the group: watching his fingers, thinking on his feet, is a clinic in subtlety and craft. Much as Schrag’s new arrangements for her older songs – and her new material – have specific parts, neither Bannister nor the band as a whole ever play any one song exactly the same. There are references to specific styles, or time periods, sprinkled throughout them, but when Bannister takes them to Memphis, say, he doesn’t steal wholesale from Steve Cropper. And when he goes in a an Americana jamband direction, you can tell that he’s internalized David Gilmour and Jerry Garcia, but he doesn’t rip those guy off either. And he uses a whole lot less notes.

Much as Schrag can be a devilishly funny presence onstage, she was in enigmatic mode at this show. She didn’t talk to the audience much, running through the songs matter-of-factly, eyes closed, completely immersed in her hypnotically circling, fingerpicked riffs. Yet she’s never sung with so much intensity and power as she did here: maybe having an electric band behind her makes her air out the wounded twang or the deep Bible Belt noir. For one reason or another, the high point of the show might have been an older song, Iowa, dating from the Iraq War era. On Schrag’s absolutely brilliant latest album, a Folkadelphis Sessions ep, it’s Nashville gothic as Pink Floyd might have done it, lowlit with resonant pedal steel from Susan Alcorn. At this show, it was a lot louder, more driving, and Schrag sang the hell out of it. The lyrics are a very artful series of three roadside images woven together to build a grim, apocalyptic ambience: heavy rains a-coming over Iowa, yikes!

Another number that Schrag had an uproariously good time with had a Ray Davies-esque, vaudevillian strut, imagining Jesus and Nicodemus as gay lovers while Bannister added wry colors with his slide. There were innumerable other did-you-catch-that moments throughout the rest of the set: Bannister’s slow, sunsplashed Gilmouresque slide leads on the opening song; his mysterious, muted wah lines in the austerely Beatlesque The Real Penelope; Foster’s single, menacing grand-guignol flurry on a witchy, shapeshifting mini-epic; and the intricately jangly interplay between the two guitars on the Macbeth-inspired Lady M. Find out what else is in store at Union Pool on Sunday afternoon.

Two of New York’s Best Psychedelic Acts and an Indie Stalwart at Cake Shop on the 13th

The headliner of the triplebill this Sunday night, Sept 13 at Cake Shop will most likely draw an older, 90s indie crowd. Hamish Kilgour, who plays at 11, is best known for his work with aptly named New Zealand indie rockers the Clean, whose coolly nebulous sonics influenced a ton of bands back in the day. But that crowd will be balanced, demographically at least, by the two acts who open the night. Ember Schrag, who began her career as a “great plains gothic” tour warrior in the late zeros, has gone deeper and deeper into psychedelia lately: her shows this year with her band have been transcendent. She kicks off the evening at 9 in a rare duo acoustic show with her similarly superb lead guitarist, Bob Bannister. Then she’s leaving Monday morning to go on tour as the organist for another dark psychedelic outfit, the Balkan-infused Alec K Redfearn & the Eyesores.

Schrag’s latest album, a live recording and free download in the Folkadelphia Sessions series, offers a look at what Schrag does with a band: it capturs them at the peak of their subtle powers. The opening track, Lady M sets the stage, the guitar interweave between Schrag and Bannister so tight that it seems like a single, otherworldly, rippling twelve-stirng – until he cuts loose with a wry Tex-Mex-flavored solo. Meanwhile, Susan Alcorn’s pedal steel soars elegantly in the background. Schrag has a Macbeth fixation: the chorus of “your children will be kings” cuts both ways, in true Shakespearean fashion.

Iowa, an older song, has been a live showstopper lately, a slowly swaying ballad heavy as stormclouds over the Midwest. Schrag takes a series of three metaphorically-charged roadside images, weaves them into one of the most menacing, apocalyptic songs released this year, and sings the hell out of it. Schrag has a thing for taking biblical imagery and turning it inside out, and this is a prime example.

Virgin in the Shadow of My Shoe packs the iconoclastic wallop of PiL’s Religion, but a thousand times more subtly, with its spiky, psychedelic sway. The final cut, The Real Penelope, works a misty, opaque groove fueled by drummer Gary Foster’s masterful malletwork: it’s the most hypnotic and enigmatic track here, capped off with a slowly spiraling, acid-wah Bannister solo. You’ll see this album on the best albums of 2015 page here at the end of the year if we all last that long.

Another album that’ll be on that page is the latest release from the 10 PM act,  Goddess – the full review is here. It was also great fun to catch the band play a rare house concert in south Brooklyn a couple of months back.That phantasmatorical, tragicomic psychedelic suite opened with singer Fran Pado soaring over a a mashup of jangly Laurel Canyon psychedelia and Abbey Road Beatles, introducing the tale of “Grinny,” a witchy figure who takes over a New Jersey family, who then struggle to break free of the evil spell that paralyzes them.

As the tale unwound, Andy Newman’s enveloping, shapeshifting keyboard textures took centerstage, then receded, then returned, in an early Genesis vein. An eerily twinkling, strummy folk-rock number followed: “Grinny was great on Halloween,” Pado revealed as the mellotron oscillated in the background. The band took a twisted bit of neo-plainchant and made a mantra-like groove out of it as Newman let his flute settings resonate above while the narrative grew grimmer. After a bit of a waltz, a spacious, minimalist intro grew slowly into a march, with hauntingly echoey vocal counterpart between Pado and one-string violinist Tamalyn Miler, who then took the creepiest solo of the night as the song built to a horrified peak. The band worked that suspensefully lustrous/macabre dynamic for the rest of the show, capped off by Miller’s shivery glissandos: it wouldn’t be fair to give away the ending.

Goddess will also be on WFMU at midnight on 9/15, joined by Bannister, Leah Coloff, and Peter Zummo, who will also be part of the festivities at the Cake Shop gig. Cover is $10.

A Killer Dark Psychedelic Triplebill in Queens

Having seen just one of the year’s best segues between two bands – in a year that’s been loaded with amazing twinbills – was there any sense in sticking around for the last band? Absolutely. Having already made the shlep out to Trans-Pecos in Ridgewood this past evening for Ember Schrag‘s potently lyrical psychedelia and Alec K. Redfearn‘s macabre, accordion-fueled psychedelic art-rock, hanging around for a rare appearance by Escape by Ostrich was worth it. The four-piece band – Willie Klein on guitar and violin, Bob Bannister on lead guitar, Chris Nelson on bass and Robert Dennis on drums – were like a no wave-tinged mashup of early Love Camp 7 (before they rediscovered the Beatles) and the Grateful Dead. They wound up a long but rewarding night with a particularly relevant, smoldeingly low-key cover of Woody Guthrie’s Deportees. Getting to that point was every bit as much fun.

Redfearn. who’s on tour at the moment, sounds like no other artist anywhere, the rare bandleader who’s iconic in psychedelic, art-rock and gothic rock circles. He also had the presence of mind – pure genius, actually – to enlist Schrag not as a guitarist but as a keyboardist. Redfearn gets his signature sound by running his accordion through a pedalboard: one minute he’s roaring like a guitar, the next he’s oscillating or adding devious wah-wah textures like Josh Camp did with his Electrovox in Chicha Libre for so long. Playing organ, Schrag harmonized seamlessly with Redfearn when she wasn’t adding hypnotic low drones or elegant baroque-flavored lines: you’d think that the band’s brilliant previous keyboardist, Orion Rigel Domisse, would have been irreplaceable, but Schrag adds her own similarly psychedelic edge. Redfearn sang in his signature powerful, brooding baritone while bassist Christopher Sadlers anchored the songs with his steady, pitchblende bowing, alternating with the occasional slinky rattlesnake groove. Drummer Matt McLaren enhanced the songs’ Balkan flavor with his sharpshooter rimshots on a kit with no cymbals. Horn player Ann Schattle supplied terse, incisive riffage when she wasn’t adding atmospherics, much like Schrag.

Auspiciously, much of the set was new material, most of the songs segueing into each other to make up a macabre suite. They opened with a thumping new number, murderous Serbian folk as done by Syd Barrett, maybe, then without stopping made their way into a swinging Balkan stripper vamp that sounded like it might be Redfearn’s classic Fire Shuffle, from his most recent album, Sister Death. As it disintegrated, radiating evil sonic radionuclides, it turned out not to be. A menacingly marionettish tune put Schattle’s horn front and center as Redfearn ran his accordion through the sonic strobe of a 1960s repeater box. The trickiest number was a Macedonian-inflected tune from Redfearn’s Exterminating Angel album from a few years ago; the darkest and catchiest material later in the set reflected a heavy Greek rembetiko influence. The folks at the Rock in Opposition Festival in France – where the band will be appearing next month – are in for a real treat.

Schrag and her amazing band – Bannister doing double duty on lead guitar, with Debby Schwartz on bass and harmony vocals and Gary Foster on drums – opened the night. Hearing her refer to herself as a “folkie” was pretty funny: although her first couple of albums are what she calls “great plains gothic,” her sound has evolved into shapeshifting, sometimes slithery psychedelic rock. Foster and Banister fueled the understatedly ominous flamenco flourishes on a bitter waltz early in the set, Schwartz and Schrag engaging in a brief, intense bit of trippy, contrapuntal neo-plainchant at one point. Seamlessly, they made their way through the straight-up, latin-tinged psychedelic pop of What Birds Do, the numbed Abbey Road Beatles angst of The Real Penelope and the shapeshifting Banquo’s Book, Bannister’s triplets mingling with Schrag’s hypnotically pulsing riffs. Likewise, it was impossible to figure out who was playing what throughout the deliciously clanging textures of one of Schrag’s several Shakespearean-influenced numbers, the agitatedly intense art-rock anthem Lady M.

Foster raised the suspense to murderous levels on the intro to Sutherland, an allusively creepy badlands tableau from Schrag’s most recent solo album, The Sewing Room. And although there’s all sorts of (usually implied) mayhem in Schrag’s double entendres, biblical and historical allusions, she can be riotously funny when she’s in the mood. My Brother’s Men, as she told the crowd, wasn’t actually about a goon squad: she got the inspiration from the title from the legions of barbecue joints run by brothers in her native Nebraska.

Dark Psychedelic Bandleader Ember Schrag Joins a Killer Triplebill at Trans-Pecos on the 23rd

Ember Schrag‘s most recent gig at Hifi Bar was one of the year’s best. For that matter, the enigmatic, charismatic psychedelic bandleader’s previous show at a house concert in south Brooklyn with phantasmagorical art-rock band Goddess was pretty amazing too. Schrag and her band open the night at Trans-Pecos at 8:30 PM this Sunday, August 23, followed by intense Balkan noir psychedelic band Alec K. Redfearn & the Eyesores, with whom Schrag will air out her chops on creepy Farfisa organ. Groove-driven no wave cult faves Escape by Ostrich give the evening an acidic coda; cover is a measly $8.

Counterintuitively, Goddess opened the Brooklyn show with their album release performance, a deliciously macabre, theatrical suite about a genuine monster who takes over a hapless New Jersey household. As electrifying as that show was, Schrag and her band were every bit as intense. On album, Schrag’s signature style until this year has been great plains gothic: low-key, reserved, with a subtle, white-knuckle intensity and allusively murderous narratives. This year, on the heels of her release of her live Folkadelphia session album, she and her band have taken those songs as well as a whole bunch of new material into vastly more trippy, artsy terrain.

Guitar polymath Bob Bannister alluded to Muscle Shoals and Fairport Convention and Blonde on Blonde Dylan, among numerous other reference points, but always twisted those styles into something terse and erudite of his own to match Schrag’s venomously symbolist lyrics. Bassist Debbie Schwartz (formerly of the Aquanettas and a fantastic, similarly psychedelic songwriter in her own right) played a surf groove on one number, slides and hammer-ons on a handful of others, and bolstered Schrag’s soaring, distantly angst-fueled voice with her high vocal harmonies. Meanwhile, drummer Gary Foster colored the songs with witchy rimshots and cymbal splashes, misty crescendos and, when necessary, a swinging four-on-the-floor garage rock drive.

Bannister’s nimble accents mingled with Schrag’s hypnotic, circular fingerpicked hooks and Foster’s brushwork on the pensive Sutherland, an understated murder ballad and the night’s opening number. Virgin in the Shadow of My Shoe, a swaying, psychedelic folk noir number, might be Schrag’s most definitive new song. She doesn’t even bother to stomp on a religious icon: she lets her shadow do it. Bannister and Schrag’s rainswept jangle blended as one on the late Beatlesque psych anthem The Real Penelope, followed by a catchy southwestern gothic clang-rock number, part Steve Wynn, part astringent 80s Boston.

Schrag likes to turn Biblical imagery inside out, and she also has a Shakespearean side, most evident in the Arthur Lee-esque number that followed that, and later the ominous Lady M, Bannister’s icepick accents taking the place of the resonant, keening Susan Alcorn steel guitar on the recorded version. From there the band made their way through another ominous waltz that also brought to mind Arthur Lee, as well as a sad, misty Laurel Canyon psych-folk anthem that exploded the Abraham myth. Schrag wound up the set with another wounded waltz where she raised her voice to a shivery Ann Wilson wail, then the slow, cruellly sardonic I Ain’t a Prophet, and a wickedly catchy janglerock song spiced with nimble triplet figures and a biting, bluesy solo from Bannister: the guy can play anything and make it his own. The Trans-Pecos show should be every bit as good.

Goddess Releases One of the Year’s Best and Most Hauntingly Psychedelic Albums

Goddess are one of New York’s most phantasmagorical, individualistic bands. There is no other group in town who sound remotely like them. Part creepy 60s psychedelic act, part folk noir, part underground theatre troupe, they create a magically eerie ambience, whether live or on record. It was a treat to be able to catch their most recent performance at a private party in south Brooklyn: the album release show for their fantastic new one, Paradise, streaming at Bandcamp. Maybe it was the low lights over a leafy back courtyard – or maybe it was Ember Schrag‘s dangerous gin punch-  but as it went on, the show built an electrically suspenseful ambience, like being invited to a wiccan ceremony or some kind of sacrifice, a real-life Stonehenge hidden away just up the block from Fourth Avenue.

Andy Newman’s lushly enveloping multi-keys are one of the keys to the band’s sound. The other is Tamalyn Miller’s one-string violin, which she built herself. With no training as a violinist, she created her own otherworldly style, sometimes trancelike, other times savage and menacing. Singer Fran Pado maxes out both the band’s surrealistic, theatrical side and also the creepiness factor. Bassist/keyboardist Bob Maynard and polymath guitar sorcerer Bob Bannister complete the picture.

The album’s opening track, Leave Here builds a gorgeously enveloping web of acoustic guitars, the women adding their eerie vocal harmonies, rising to a hauntingly bracing interlude, the stark overtones of the violin contrasting with the gently suspenseful lattice behind it. Death by Owls, a mini-suite, juxtaposes an uneasy lullaby theme with pulsing, warily echoey vocals and then a psych-folk march that looks back to vintage King Crimson or the Strawbs at their most psychedelic. Begins sets soaring, stately, gorgeous vocal harmonies over what could be a horror-film piano theme. By now, it’s clear there’s a narrative of sorts, if a rather opaque one: “Like a finger in the palm, like the death of remorse,” the women intone.

Ponies, a slow folk-rock piano theme, switches from a Brothers Grimm-style tale of mass drowning to a balmy, nocturnal Peter Zummo trombone solo. The band builds contrastingly ethereal vocals and droll electronic keys throughout the anthemic, late Beatlesque Belladonna Honey. Grey Skull works a disquieting dichotomy between ethereal, mellotron-like art-rock orchestration and stark, spare strings, Prado’s mysterious vocals soaring calmly overhead.

Married opens with the mantra “this is not a dream,” those richly soaring vocals over spare, baroque-tinged classical guitar, Miller providing a menacing, multitracked outro. The album winds up with the majestically elegaic title track, an escape anthem fueled by organ and violin, Pado’s gently alluring vocals joined by a choir of voices: a shot of hope breaking through the gloom that’s been gathering all the way to this point. What is this all about? It’s not clear. What is clear is that this is an album you have to spend some time with, and get lost in. Its closest relative is Judy Henske and Jerry Yester”s 1969 cult classic Farewell Aldebaran; someday this too may be just as prized by collectors of magical esoterica.

The outdoor show featured another, similarly phantasmagorical suite, this one a sinister, tragicomic tale of a witch who hypnotizes and then moves in with a hapless New Jersey family, who must then use what little strength they have left to break free of the spell. No spoilers here! And for the icing on the cake, Schrag played a set afterward with her full band, Bannister doing double duty on lead guitar, with Debby Schwartz playing lusciously slippery slides and chords on bass and Gary Foster behind the drum kit, matching Bannister’s edgy nuance. Highlights of the set were not one but two Macbeth-themed new ones. What’s become more and more intriguing, watching Schrag’s repertoire grow over the past several months, is how she takes fire-and-brimstone biblical imagery and turns it back on itself, a savagely articulate critique set to similarly biting, incisive psychedelic rock. Speaking of which, she’s playing Hifi Bar (the old Brownies) at 8 PM on July 2. Watch this space for upcoming Goddess gigs – with their theatrical, multimedia bent, they like to make their events special and for that reason haven’t been playing live a lot lately.

Dark Songstress Ember Schrag Plays a Revealingly Low-Key Brooklyn House Concert

Carlos, the goodlooking, rangy guy who runs the space housing the Gatehouse concert series in Fort Greene, surveyed the room Friday night. His black eyes shifted warily, separating familiar faces from newcomers. His blasé, taciturn expression muted a spring-loaded, muscularly twitchy presence, clearly on the prowl for fresh meat. More about that later.

Ember Schrag opened the show in a rare all-acoustic duo performance with polymath lead guitarist Bob Bannister. Notwithstanding her DIY esthetic, Schrag is an elegant singer with sophisticated mic technique, and isn’t used to singing without one. So it was interesting to watch her scramble to find a way to project into the space, in the process unleashing an unexpected grit and raw menace that don’t usually find their way into her typically stately, enigmatic vocals. While she’s most recently been mining a richly lyrical, psychedelically-tinged art-rock vein, this setting gave her the chance to air out several tracks from her haunting, low-key, mostly acoustic Great Plains gothic album The Sewing Room, including the title track, a metaphorically-charged battle of angels that ends as an unexpectedly triumphant escape anthem. As the Nebraska-born songwriter told it, there might be more than a little autobiography in there.

Throughout Sutherland, a tensely fingerpicked murder ballad, Schrag’s voice reached for more menace and foreshadowing than her deadpan, Melora Creager-esque delivery on the studio version. By contrast, Virgin in the Shadow of My Shoe – a swaying pop anthem from Schrag’s latest release, a live Folkadelphia session featuring Susan Alcorn on pedal steel – was irresistibly snide and funny. The two guitarists kept a steady stroll going with Banquo’s Book, its ominous series of images and a deliciously understated, bitingly terse, bluesy Bannister solo.

On album, Your Words is a delicate kiss-off anthem; here, Schrag raised the anger factor, but just a little. An older song related an incident involving a collaboration with a free jazz group and an offer of free rent in a space that turned out to have bedbugs; a new one, Speak to Me in Dreams, juxtaposed another trail of nonchalantly murderous imagery with sizzling fretwork from Bannister. Schrag closed with I Ain’t a Prophet, a corruscating remake of a familiar fire-and-brimstone Bible myth – “Got to use a hammer on Jacob’s Ladder,” she calmly intoned.

Now you might think that someone whose songs can be as starkly serious as most of the numbers in this set would bring a similar gravitas to the stage. Not so. In front of an audience, Schrag is a firecracker, bantering with the crowd and sharing insights into her fabulistic, Calvinist imagery. She peppers her songs with all sorts of Old Testament references coupled with an irreverence that at the core is pure oldschool punk rock. And as generous as she is with the keys to her narratives, she also brought a delicious gin/grapefruit punch, and a cake made out of several kinds of flour that everyone was raving about, and some baked chicken.

About two songs before the end of the show, Carlos finally went into action with a flying leap onto the table, poised to make a swipe at the meat. But an audience member in the back calmly lifted the jet-black figure and his furry paws and returned him to his spot on the floor, where the hungry predator regrouped, grudgingly accepted an appreciative pat on the head, and began plotting his next move. Watch this space for upcoming shows by Schrag, with or without furry friends in the house.