Considering the rapt, otherworldly ambience that singer Carol Lipnik likes to create onstage, there’s always some kind of magic in the ether. But even by her bewitching standards, this past week’s first installment of her three-Thursday March residency at Joe’s Pub was a special kind of sorcery. She and her new trio – longtime pianist Matt Kanelos joined by his longtime collaborator Kyle Sanna on lead guitar and keyboards – had opened with a deep-space cover of Harry Nilsson’s Lifeline, evoking an anguish and desolation unmatched even by the original..
Expanding on a key line from the song, Lipnik asked the crowd, “Is there anybody out there?” Laughter was their first response. Afterward, when she scampered out into the audience with her mic at the end of Tom Ward’s Spirits Be Kind to Me, there was no joke in how almost instinctively they sang along with her vocalese, in harmony, even.
And kept that ghostly “oooooh” going into the next song: Michael Hurley’s The Werewolf. All of a sudden the singalong had new dimension. Was this suddenly supposed to be creepy, or mysterious, or coyly funny? All of the above, maybe. That’s Lipnik at the top of her enigmatic game, always allowing for fun but also for 180 degrees from that.
Like the longingly elegaic title track from her most recent album, Almost Back to Normal, which gave her one of many opportunities to go to the stratospheric top of her four-octave range. She’d written that, and much of the album, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. “It’s not like you can go back to normal…whatever that might be,” she cautioned the crowd.
Decked out in a slinky black lace dress and shimmery vintage silverplate necklace, dark brown eyes glistening and intent under sharp auburn bangs, she swayed, and shimmied a little during a drolly hilarious, Klaus Nomi-influenced goth-opera cover of The Twist. More than once, she stood tall and then gently hung invisible stars from the sky, mirroring the elusively distant places her voice would travel to, along with the hope and longing in her darkly allusive songs.
Kanelos is a polymath pianist and a masterful, meticulous accompanist. He and Lipnik have a rare chemistry, her vibrato modulating in perfect time with his steady, resonantly Schubertian phrasing throughout their hour onstage, when he wasn’t taking wit-infused detours into saloon blues, acerbic downtown jazz or lingering Keith Jarrett-like phrases. Sanna is the rare guitarist who knows that less is more and that in this project, especially, every note counts. When he wasn’t providing methodically propulsive jangle, carefully considered fingerpicking or judiciously minimalist accents, he was adding coolly low-key washes of synth for dub-like atmosphere.
Lipnik ended the set with a brand-new number, My Piano – as in “My piano was once a tree” – taking a steady, mysterious climb upwards, one note at a time, until it seemed that there was no high note that her voice couldn’t hit. Listening back to the show, that high note appears to be Eb above Eb above Eb above middle C – but you know how recordings sometimes aren’t pitch-perfect. Wouldn’t it be a thrill if Lipnik could come out of this month’s residency with a live album to show for it? She’s back at Joe’s Pub on March 10 and 17 at 7:30 PM; cover is $16.