Midway through a rather ominous minor-key reggae song, Daphne Lee Martin’s keyboardist played most of a verse from Besame Mucho, using a glockenspiel setting to max out the menace. That was one of the high points of her show last night at the Way Station in Fort Greene, the unlikely setting for the first stop on her current tour which winds its way down to South by Southwest. Once word of her new album Moxie gets out, it’s not likely she’ll be playing places like the Way Station. She and her fantastic band Raise the Rent did most of that album, in sequence, with an exuberant expertise to match its eclectic style. Martin’s down-to-earth, uncluttered but finely nuanced alto voice might remind you of June Christy or Erica Smith, which makes sense since she and Smith were bandmates around the turn of the past century.
Martin and her five-piece band opened with Sweet & Low Down, a pulsing noir blues fueled by creepy funeral organ and then a fiery Strat solo from the lead guitarist that exploded in a frenzy of tremolo-picking as he went up the scale. The minor-key noir mood lingered through their second number, Whiskey & Sin, a luridly grim waltz, sort of a House of the Setting Sun: some girl in the crowd let out a scream timed perfectly to the end of the first verse as it reached a peak. Belly, a strutting vintage 70s-style soul groove, first fueled by echoey Rhodes piano and then woozily hilarious Dr. Dre-style synth, was next. Martin and band picked up the pace from there with the uneasily swinging House That Built Itself, lit up by some more bitingly bluesy lead guitar, then went scampering through Molotov with a torchy gypsy jazz-inflected intensity. Most of the night, Martin’s vocals were too low in the mix to reveal the level of detail that she typically brings to a song, but this one was a showcase for some unselfconsciously spine-tingling blue notes and melismas.
The next number, a duet with the keyboardist, had a planitive flamenco-rock feel, like the skeleton frame of an early Firewater song; then the bass and drums agilely transformed it into roots reggae in a split second. New London, Connecticut, where Martin and band have made their home for the last few years, has had a fertile music scene since the recently, tragically reduced Reducers first came up in the 80s: it’s good to see such a fantastic band representing that city on the road.