New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Tag: erica smith music

Rare Intimacy with the King of Calypso, the Mighty Sparrow at Lincoln Center

Lincoln Center impresario Viviana Benitez introduced Thursday night’s show by the Mighty Sparrow with a quote from a recent interview he’d given to Vivien Goldman. The octogenarian king of calypso had explained succinctly that singularity is no longer the order of the day, and that if there’s ever been a time for the people to unite, this is it.

That’s as political as he got. With his powerful, protean baritone as colorful as ever and his usual outrageous sense of humor, he led an exuberant, eight-piece New York backing unit through a set of classics from throughout his seventy-year career. Calypso and soca lyrics often have a powerful social awareness, but this show was packed mostly with scampering, irrepressibly devious, innuendo-driven dance tunes. It’s hard to imagine Bob Marley’s 1970s work, dancehall reggae toasters like Yellowman, or for that matter a lot of hip-hop, without Sparrow paving the way.

The brief Q&A before the show set the tone. With his signature blend of sagacity and deadpan wit, Sparrow was as funny when he deflected a question as when he was willing to offer an answer. “I remember your music being very sexual for that time,” a Caribbean woman a few decades younger asserted, before inquiring whether or not he writes his own songs. Sparrow didn’t answer, didn’t move a muscle, as chuckles broke out among the crowd. Later, asked if he had a favorite song, he declared he didn’t think he’d ever done one he didn’t like, which spoke volumes for the performance.

The night’s funniest number was Pussycat, with harmony singers Erica Smith and Rembert Block coyly punching in on the refrain “Afraid pussy bite me.” The song is all the more classic for being completely G-rated. Sparrow’s so afraid of this little kitty that he’s never going to touch pussy again – but wait, some pussy doesn’t have teeth. And by the way, who got the scissors to cut pussy’s whiskers?

The salsa-spiced Sparrow Dead was just as amusing in a completely different way, flipping the script on anyone who’d dare hate on a legend. Thinly veiled, suggestive references were everywhere, from the tongue-in-cheek Mr. Walker,, to the sardonic No Money No Love, to the thunderingly macho Congo Man. and finally the witheringly cynical, anti-imperialist 1956 hit Jean and Dinah. The whole massive knew the words and sang along lustily.

The band rose to the occasion, bouncing and bubbling. Pianist Phillip Nichols provided some lushly neoromantic solo intros along with a lot of driving, Cuban-influenced lines alongside lead guitarist Lane Steinberg,, acoustic guitarist Dave Foster, Louis Fouche on sax, Tom DeVito on drums and reggae legend Larry McDonald on percussion. The womens’ harmonies – Smith’s jazz nuance and megawatt smile contrasting with the more cabaret-influenced Block’s calm but brassy presence – raised the music’s steamy energy to tropical temperatures.

The Mighty Sparrow’s next New York appearance is at Joe’s Pub on Dec 7 at 7 PM; tix are $25. The mostly-weekly free concert series at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. continues with a rare Tuesday show tomorrow night, Nov 26 at 7: 30 PM featuring Afro-Cuban pianist Dayramir González & Habana enTRANCé. Smith and Foster are also playing with one of their other projects, the Gershwin Brothers, opening for a concert performance of Block’s new opera at the Treehouse at 2A at 9 PM on Dec 8.

Shattering Acoustic Songs and Defiant Rock Anthems Side By Side on the Lower East

“The most depressing music ever!” That’s how one of the members of high-voltage rockers Petey & the True Mongrel Hearts introduced his bandmate, singer Erica Smith at the Treehouse at 2A a couple of weekends ago. But much as Smith’s shattering, nuanced voice and painterly lyrics deal almost exclusively with dark topics, her songs actually aren’t depressing at all. She’s all about transcendence. Which is what dark music is all about, right? If everything was hopeless, why bother? The real torment is the lure of something better, and Smith channels that hope against hope better than just about anyone alive.

Her career as one of the leading lights of a still-vital Lower East Side Americana scene in the late zeros took a couple of hits, first with the loss of her drummer, the late, great Dave Campbell, then the demands of job and motherhood. Since then, she hasn’t exactly been inactive, but her gigs have been more sporadic: we can’t take her for granted anymore. Playing solo acoustic, she was all the more unselfconsciously intense for the sparseness and directness of the songs.

As usual, her imagery was loaded. Glances exchanged, unspoken, almost buckled under the weight of a pivotal twist of fate. A surreal, dissociative stare up into bright lights could have been a prelude to a grisly interrogation…or just a particularly anxious moment as seen from a hospital bed. That reference came early during the night’s best song, Veterans of Foreign Wars, a brooding waltz ending with a scenario that could have been either an Eric Garner parable, one with broader, antiwar implications, or both. Otherwise, she strummed and nimbly fingerpicked her way through styles from austere front-porch folk to vintage soul to minimalist rock.

But Smith is hardly all about gloom and doom: she has a fun side. The solo set made a stark contrast with her turn out in front of the band, through a smoldering take of group leader/guitarist Pete Cenedella’s mighty, steamy oldschool soul ballad, Hand to Lend, which quickly became a launching pad for belting and torchy melismatics to rival Aretha. Nobody sings a soul anthem like Smith: we may have lost Sharon Jones, but we still have this elusive performer.

Cenedella got his start fronting the highly regarded American Ambulance, whose ferocious populism and interweave of Stonesy rock with what was then called alt-country won them a national following. But musically speaking, this latest group’s musicianship rivals any outfit he’s been involved with.

Drummer David Anthony’s matter-of-factly swinging four-on-the-floor groove and bassist Ed Iglewski’s trebly, melodic lines underpinned lead guitarist Rich Feridun’s incisively terse fills and Charly CP Roth’s rivers of organ. Alongside Cenedella, the harmony vocal trio of Smith, Lisa Zwier and Rembert Block spun elements of Motown, Tina Turner soul and Balkan gothic into an uneasily silken sheen.

The songs in the group’s first set (this blog went AWOL for the second one) rock just as hard as Cenedella’s most electric earlier material, and if anything, are more anthemic than ever. The addition of the organ along with a frequent 60s soul influence often brought to mind peak-era Springsteen at his most ornate: Gaslight Anthem, eat your heart out.

The catchiest and most danceable number was a slinky go-go-strut, The Getaround. The most straightforwardly poignant, in a mix of songs with persistent themes of heartbreak and crawling from the wreckage afterward, was the imagistic Skies Can’t Decide. Setting the stage with the catchy, defiant Down Harder Roads and Turning of the Wheel worked out well, considering the fireworks, both loud and quiet, which followed.

Petey & the True Mongrel Hearts are currently in the midst of recording a lavish double album, so they ought to be playing out a lot more. And Smith is at Otto’s on Nov 1 at 7 PM with Beatlesque soul band Nikki & the Human Element

Rebecca Turner Brings Her Richly Jangly, Anthemic Songcraft Back to the East Village

Songwriter Rebecca Turner earned a devoted following around the turn of the century for her catchy, anthemic blend of janglerock, Laurel Canyon folk-pop and the occasional detour into starker acoustic folk or more ornate psychedelia. In a lot of ways, she represents the vanguard of ex-Brooklynite musicians caught between the very tail end of the cds-and-college-radio era and the age of streaming and vinyl. She puts out albums at her own pace (she’s working on a new one, helmed in the studio by husband/bassist Scott Anthony, recently responsible for remastering the Feelies’ latest vinyl reissues). She also has an 8 PM gig coming up on May 7 at Hifi Bar, the scene of her most recent Manhattan gig.

That was last year, and it was killer. She had a five-piece backing unit for that one including Anthony on bass and Rich Feridun on six-string lead guitar; John Sharples, playing twelve-string, was the band’s not-so-secret weapon. They opened with a backbeat-driven anthem with torrents of lyrics and tantalizingly unresolved chord changes. The Cat That Can Be Alone, she explained, was inspired by an Anita O’Day quote relayed by Love Camp 7’s Dann Baker, something along the lines of “The cat that can be alone is better off than the cat that can’t.” It turned out to be a bouncy Beatlesque number, Turner soaring to the top of her range with a hint of country twang. She and the band wound it up with a tongue-in-cheek segue into the O’Day version of Tenderly.

Turner’s next number was period-perfect Lakeside Lounge rock from around 2000, a mashup of  swaying vintage 70s C&W-tinged with Blonde on Blonde era Dylan, The set hit a peak midway through with a rousingly jangling take of the Byrdsy anthem The Way She is Now, Sharples choosing his spots and leaving them out to glisten in the bar’s low lights.

Another backbeat anthem, That Did It, was part 60s electric Dylan, part Amy Rigby at her jangliest, with a delicious blend of six and twelve-string guitars meshing with Turner’s acoustic. She followed with Idiot, a similarly catchy, wryly propulsive number. A low-key, matter-of-factly fingerpicked take of the ballad Comfort You Up brought the lights down, Erica Smith joining to add lush low harmonies. Then they picked up the pace again with the lilting, bucolic My Morning.

The cover that had everyone in the crowd mystified was a BeeGees song from the 60s, Sun in My Morning, Sharples’ twelve-string filtering down into it as if in a Turner painting. Arguably the best song of the night was a new one, Tom Tom, shimmering in the twin-guitar jangle, up to a suspenseful turnaround on the chorus and a fiery, twangy Feridun solo. For the encore, Turner aired out what’s become her signature song, Brooklyn Is So Big. It was cute and wistful when it came out: it’s heartbreaking now, considering how many of Turner’s contemporaries have been priced out. It’s a good bet Turner and the band will bust out a lot of this material at the show this weekend.

Revisiting a Rare Gem by Jen Starsinic

Talk about working up a sweat: Jen Starsinic recorded her debut album, The Flood & the Fire (streaming at her music page) in hundred-degree Boston heat, with neither air conditioning nor fan, in the summer of 2013. The Nashville-based songwriter and multi-instrumentalist is hardly unknown – she toured extensively with David Mayfield, and is a staple on the folk festival circuit – but she deserves a wider audience. Vocally, she brings to mind the unselfconscious, plaintive depth and nuance of a young Erica Smith. Likewise, her songs run the gamut of Americana both old and new, from newgrass, to oldschool honkytonk, to more psychedelic pastoral sounds.

The album’s opening track, Time to Lose, an upbeat blend of newgrass and ethereal Americana pop, has a disarmingly down-to-earth bitttersweetness: ”Bones regrow but our heart doesn’t heal,” Starsinic explains, with just a millisecond of hesitation that packs a wallop. Ultimately, her message is  that there’s no shame in doing a second take if the first one doesn’t come out the way you want it. Likewise, the fiddle-fueled indian summer ballad Stay, a gentle nudge at a restless spirit who might just be happier in a relationship than in her “long years chasing boys around the block.”

The Only One Who Can Break a Heart is a morose vintage C&W ballad worthy of Laura Cantrell: “I’m damned if I stay, I’m damned if I try to leave you where you belong,” Starsinic laments. Oh My Darling‘s Allison de Groot lends her banjo to the low-key, John Prine-esque surrealism of Six Foot Three, while Molly Tuttle, of the Tuttles with AJ Lee, flatpicks on the intricately bristling, trickily syncopated Ragdolls.

With its stark blend of Starsinic’s fiddle and Eric Law’s cello, the understated escape anthem It’s a Foreign Thing puts a lushly textural spin on an antique Appalachian style. Mining its canary imagery for all it’s worth, Birdie in a Cage is just as allusive, and absolutely chilling despite the tune’s bluegrass warmth. The reverb on Starsinic’s voice in the lingering, woundedly pensive waltz Move in Time with Me matches the tremolo on her guitar.

Dive a Little Deeper sets Starsinic’s charmingly aphoristic yet characteristically brooding oceanic metaphors to an oldschool bluegrass stroll: “You can wait like a fool all sticky with sand for the water to wash your limbs, or you can wait like a fool all night and all day instead of wading deeper in.’

Charlie Rose’s atmospheric pedal steel hangs in the back throughout the even more disquieting Wildfire and its calm tale of a forest fire gone out of control. The gently but purposefully swaying Since You’ve Come Around winds up the album on a quietly shattering note, Starsinic pondering where the good times went “When it was dangerous you and cynical me.” Such a strong debut effort portends even better things for Starsinic: she’s somebody to keep an eye on.

Lizzie & the Makers Bring Their Incandescent Psychedelic Blues and Soul Back to the West Village

Lizzie & the Makers are one of one of New York’s most distinctive, exhilarating bands. They jam, but they keep their solos short and spot-on, usually two or maybe three bars at the most. Their inspirations are classic Chicago blues and southern soul, but they also have a psychedelic side: they’re closer to Robert Cray – with a charismatic woman out in front of the band – or Led Zep than, say, Amy Winehouse. Intense frontwoman Lizzie Edwards might not only be the best blue-eyed soul singer in New York: she might be the best blue-eyed soul singer anywhere. She and her dynamic band make a return trip to the West Village on June 23 at 10:30 PM at the Bitter End. Cover is $10.

Their last gig there was a firestorm of smart, incisive playing and fearless, impassioned songs. They wasted no time in taking the energy to redline with the hard blues of Fight Song: Edwards’ smoldering chorus mantra was “I’m ready,” bolstered by the harmonies of Erica Smith and Sarah Wise, guitarist Greg McMullen adding a searing, shivery solo over John Deley’s similarly simmering organ.

Edwards led the band into the explosively slinky 3.5 with her signature, meticulously turbocharged alto vocals, part satin, part siren; it’s hard to think of any other singer with such a ferociously potent low register who can sound so pillowy and warmly enveloping as she goes up the scale. McMullen traded a couple of tantalizing bars with Stratocaster player James Winwood over the nonchalantly swaying groove of bassist Brett Bass and drummer Phil Cimino.

The three women built a whole darkly ecstatic gospel church worth of harmony in Free,. a defiantly swaying, altered boogie, Winwood’s wry sense of humor front and center as he put the bite on his bluesmetal licks. Deley’s organ and McMullen’s classic Muscle Shoals riffs fueled It’s Not Me, It’s You as Edwards channeled blue-flame cynicism: the way Deley voiced what would otherwise have been a blues harp solo was cool, and surreal to the extreme.

The band hit a jackhammer shuffle groove with Hopeless, Edwards and her choir reaching peaks that bands like Heart only dream of, the vengeance in Edwards’ “can you turn me away?” arguably the high point of the set. She brought a high-voltage psychedelic edge to Bonnie Raitt’s Real Man and then brought the lights down for the swaying, explosively crescendoing Lonely Soul and its searing blend of roadhouse rock and restless early 70s Zep.

The group channelled a surreally echoing angst, Abbey Road Beatles slipping unexpectedly into soul with Sleep It Off, then hit a defiant peak with Blue Moon as McMullen hit his wah pedal and screamed behind Edwards’ wounded wail. They wound up the set with the furious, fearless shuffle The Bear, a launching pad for Winwood’s most concise, purist playing.

Edwards, being one of New York’s most in-demand singers, gets around a lot. Besides this band, she leads a similarly adrenalizing gospel group, Lizzie & the Sinners, where she also sings alongside Smith and Wise. She was one of the highlights of the 50th anniversary of Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde fest at Hifi Bar earlier this month, where she raised the roof with a scorching take of Pledging My Time. And she was front and center on several numbers at this past week’s Squeeze cover night there, where C.P. Roth, Tom Shad and Dave Foster’s all-star band played the British new wave band’s classic Argybargy and East Side Story albums pretty much note-for-note, all the way through, no small achievement.

Erica Smith Brings Her Poignant, Spectacular Voice and Eclectically Shattering Songs to the East Village

Erica Smith is one of New York’s most distinctive and often harrowing voices in folk noir and Americana. But even in this city, Smith’s ability to shift effortlessly from style to style is pretty spectacular. In addition to performing her own music, she’s currently a member of both the Richard Thompson cover group the Shootout Band – in which she puts her own stamp on Linda Thompson’s vocals – and also the explosive gospel-rock band Lizzie and the Sinners. Smith can belt a blues ballad or deliver a plaintive Appalachian narrative with anyone. And she’s also a versatile jazz stylist. Her latest album, a jazz recording with her band the 99 Cent Dreams, is One for My Baby, streaming at Spotify. She’s got a gig coming up on an excellent twinbill at Hifi Bar on May 10 at 7:30 PM; similarly lyrical and somewhat sunnier Americana singer Rebecca Turner follows at around 8:30 PM.

There’s a tragic backstory here: as it turned out, this was the final recording by the great New York drummer Dave Campbell. Perhaps best known for his serpentine, turn-on-a-dime work with psychedelic rock band Love Camp 7, Campbell was also a terrific swing jazz player with a flair for Brazilian grooves, which comes across vividly on the more upbeat tunes here. This is a collection of counterintuitive versions of standards recorded with rock band instrumentation – electric guitar, bass, drums and Leif Arntzen’s soulful muted trumpet on two numbers – along with an obscure treasure by one of this era’s great lit-rock songwriters. It opens with The Very Thought of You, where Smith distinguishes her version from the famous Billie Holliday take with her inscrutable delivery, growing more playfully optimistic as she goes along. Guitarist Dann Baker (also of Love Camp 7) mashes up Barney Kessel and Wes Montgomery as he follows Smith’s emotional trajectory.

Interestingly, there are a couple of songs commonly associated with Sinatra here. Smith does I Could Write a Book as ebullient, optimistic swing: the song feels like it’s about jump out of its shoes, but Smith holds it in check over a slightly ahead-of-the-beat bassline And she does the title track a tad faster than the Ol’ Blue Eyes original, echoing the bartender’s desire to call it a night as much as the wee-hours angst of the lyrics, Baker with her every step of the way through an alternately woozy and vividly brooding interpretation.

She does Rodgers and Hart’s It Never Entered My Mind as lingering, noir-tinged torch jazz, Baker’s gracefully stately chordal ballet in tandem with Campbell’s tersely slinky 6/8 groove. Smith’s careful, minutely jeweled, woundedly expressive vocals mine every ounce of ironic, biting subtext in the lyrics. Ain’t Misbehavin’ gets a hushed low-key swing treatment that builds to coyly nonchalant optimism, Arntzen’s trumpet following suit.

Campbell’s artfully acrobatic tumble opens Everything I’ve Got as an altered bossa before the band swings it by the tail, Smith leading the group on a long upward trajectory that far outpaces the Blossom Dearie original. The album’s most shattering track is a desolate, rainswept take of Cry Me a River, Baker shifting Kessel’s lingering lines further into the shadows over Campbell’s low-key, sepulchrally minimalistic brushwork. The band does the first recorded version of Livia Hoffman’s Valentine as a slow swing tune: “What are childhood crushes for? For crushing all your dreams forevermore,” Smith intones in a knowing, wounded mezzo-soprano. The album winds up with a wryly good-naturedly suspenseful, rainforest-swing solo take of Campbell’s drums on Everything I’ve Got: just wait til the hip-hop nation finds out that this exists. Throughout the record, Smith’s disarmingly direct, imaginative, emotionally vivid phrasing breathes new life into songs that other singers sometimes phone in, reason alone to give this a spin if classic jazz is your thing.

Young Marble Giants on Both Sides of the Pond

What’s the most unlikely band reunion ever? The Velvet Underground? Or when Pink Floyd got back together for that live tv cameo? How about this August 27 at 7:30 PM, when Young Marble Giants will play their cult favorite 1981 album Colossal Youth at London’s Royal Festival Hall? There’s karmic justice, and no little irony in the fact that thirty-five years after they first broke up, the band are playing one of their biggest gigs ever. What’s probably just as unlikely is that they’d be together to do it at all. £17.50 balcony seats are still available for budget-minded London postpunk fans.

Meanwhile, on this side of the pond, a stellar and similarly unlikely collection of downtown New York rock talent are getting together at the exact same hour at Hifi Bar to play the album in its entirety. Springboarded by Elk City’s Renee LoBue, the performers include folk noir chanteuse Erica Smith, janglerock mastermind Paula Carino, the Bush Tetras’ Cynthia Sley, Toot Sweet‘s acerbic Mary Spencer Knapp, Speed the Plow‘s John and Toni Baumgartner, along with many, many others. This is a gig where there may be as many band members as audience members in the house.

The album itself is quirky, very humbly and rather primitively recorded, and an acquired taste for some. A favorite of college radio dj’s when it came out, it’s considered one of the foundations of lo-fi music in general. As precious and prissy as so much so-called bedroom pop is, it wouldn’t be a stretch to file the record within that genre. Stuart Moxham’s minimalist, tentative guitar and simple yet saturnine keyboards made an apt backdrop for frontwoman Alison Statton’s distinctive, unassuming, low-key vocals, punctuated by Moxham’s brother Philip’s incisive if similarly simple bass work. You can check it out – or revisit fond college dorm memories – at Spotify.

Speaking of performers who’re doing the tribute show, Smith and Knapp most recently shared the stage at 2A at the end of May, on a fantastic quadruplebill with American Ambulance‘s Pete Cenedella and host Monica “L’il Mo” Passin. Passin distinguished herself with her ability to shift seamlessly between innumerable styles, from Brill Building pop, to latin soul, rockabilly, oldschool C&W and rootsy bar-band rock. Her guitar playing was just as eclectic: she’s the rare player who can do a song solo acoustic, stick a solo in the middle and have it seem perfectly natural even without bass and drums.

Knapp’s accordion work was just as diverse, running the gamut from torchy French chanson, to enigmatic bedroom pop (if anybody on this bill really GETS Young Marble Giants, it’s her), ornately theatrical art-rock and an unexpected and very successful detour toward the avant garde. Passin playfully needled Cenedella for his handful of references to ganja, in several numbers from American Ambulance’s cult classic Streets of NYC album, a bittersweet look at uneasy teenage romance in New York in the late 70s. Which was funny, since Cenedella’s blend of twangy Americana and biting Graham Parker-esque proto new wave songcraft is the furthest thing from stoner music.

The star of the show was Smith, who held the audience rapt with a mix of new material and old favorites. As she told the crowd, her songs typically fit into three distinct categories: death songs, seduction songs and despair songs. An unexpectedly seductive number was the chilling, nocturnal Nashville, Tennessee, a stark waltz from Smith’s Snowblind album. Along with similarly spare, plaintive versions of the folk standards Pretty Saro and Wayfaring Stranger, she spun quietly through the wrenchingly poignant River King, a gently swaying, Fairport Convention-ish art-folk number with a knockout punch, a metaphorically loaded tale of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. She also brought out a handful of new numbers: the night’s most impactful song was a brand-new one, Veterans of Foreign Wars, a brooding, suspensefully enveloping waltz with what could be a chilling allusion to the Eric Garner murder. Although Smith’s imagery is opaque and allusive – that’s the seduction thing going on – so you never know.

And after the four onstage had wrapped up their evening, the irrepressibly charming, ebullient, wickedly tight swing jazz harmony trio the Tickled Pinks lept onstage with their bassist and guitarist and kept the audience on the sunny side of the street with a brief set of standards. “They’re all the same song,” bandleader Karla Rose (of brilliant, psychedelic noir quartet Karla Rose & the Thorns) joked, but all that counterpoint, and all those harmonic leaps all over the place, aren’t exactly easy. But the trio sang as if they’d been doing this all their lives. Which they sort of have.

Passin’s next show upstairs at 2A is this August 30 at 9, where she switches to bass to play with countrypolitan chanteuse Drina Seay‘s fantastic noir-inclined band.

Erica Smith Is Back with a Vengeance

Erica Smith is one of the most diverse and most shatteringly evocative singers in New York. She got her start in oldtime folk music – we’re talking eighteenth century, sea chanteys and such – then went deep into Americana, then played everything from janglerock to psychedelia to torchy jazz with her backup band the 99 Cent Dreams. Most recently, she’s been enlisted to sing the Linda Thompson role in the Shootout Band, the downtown NYC supergroup who specialize in Richard and Linda Thompson songs. Smith is also one-third of the amazing all-female gospel frontline of Lizzie & the Sinners. But she hasn’t lost a step writing and performing her own plaintive, pensive, sometimes exhilarating originals. She’s doing a relatively rare (at least, these days) solo gig on May 31 at 9 PM upstairs at 2A on an excellent bill with fellow Americana guitarist/singer Monica Passin, a.k.a. L’il Mo, with wryly edgy, politically-fueled American Ambulance frontman Pete Cenedella headlining at around 11.

Smith’s most recent solo show was on a similarly kick-ass quadruplebill at the Jalopy back in February with Passin, the witty, historically-inspired, lyrically brilliant Robin Aigner and then the coyly whimsical, multistylistic violin-accordion duo the Wisterians. Smith opened with one of her most picturesque, intense numbers, River King, a waterside tableau that puts a terse update on classic Fairport Convention. Her new material was also strong: a bittersweet, fingerpicked oldtimey Piedmont-style blues; an even more bittersweet, summery waltz set in Corlear’s Hook Park on the Lower East Side; and an angst-driven narrative written on the eve of a Colorado blizzzard, with flight cancelllations and their immense implications. And she treated the Americana purists in the crowd to a downright haunting, brooding take of Wayfaring Stranger and a low-key, simmering version of the old folk standard Pretty Saro, from her cult favorite album Friend or Foe.

The rest of that night could easily have been anticlimactic but it wasn’t. Passin pulled off the rare feat of playing lots of guitar solos, solo acoustic, and managed to make them work without sounding skeletal and ungrounded. Aigner cut loose with that richly ambered, jazzily nuanced voice of hers, singing sly hokum blues, metaphorically-loaded Depression-era historical narratives and allusively snarling ballads. And the Wisterians – violinist Karl Meyer and accordionist Brooke Watkins – matched Aigner one-liner for one-liner with a clever, sometimes vaudevillian set that spanned from oldtime Americana, to Belgian barroom dance music, to edgy, chromatically-fueled Balkan folk.

Downtown Luminaries and Secret Special Guests Play Richard Thompson and Graham Parker at the Mercury this Sunday

The classic album night was invented at the Bottom Line, the West 4th Street venue shuttered in 2004 after their landlord, New York University, raised their rent in order to kick them out for good since they owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in back rent. At that point, the gay couple who owned the club were getting old but were stubbornly still booking has-beens from the venue’s glory days in the 70s, when Bruce Springsteen sold out a weeklong stand and Lou Reed recorded his Take No Prisoners album there. Attrition is a cruel thing, and it did the Bottom Line in.

Still, the club made the occasional halfhearted attempt to draw a crowd. The most successful, at least moneywise, were the classic album nights. It’s not clear who did the first album cover night there: it might have been New Jersey bar band leader Gary Myrick, or it might have been the crew who eventually morphed into the Loser’s Lounge contingent, whose preference for cheese and camp typically overwhelmed any lackadaisical attempt to do justice to the songs, such as they were, Either way, it was a cheap way to pack the club. Thirty people in the band, running on and offstage, everybody bringing a girlfriend or boyfriend, maybe even another friend or two? Multiply that by what was then a stiff twenty dollar cover…and no drink tickets for the band, since there were so many musicians. Pure gravy for the venue – especially since everyone except for the organizers were playing for free.

In the decade or so since the Bottom Line closed, there have been innumerable other classic album nights staged across this city. Some of the less crassly commercial ones have been transcendent: Mary Lee’s Corvette outdid Dylan with their live version of Blood on the Tracks the first time around, released it on album, then played it again live, twelve years later. System Noise, who morphed into Americana jamband the Sometime Boys, sold out venues all over town with their Ziggy Stardust cover nights. There’s a classic album twinbill coming up at 6 (six) PM on Sunday, March 22 at the Mercury that threatens to rival both of those, where an A-list of downtown NYC talent will be covering both Richard & Linda Thompson’s iconic Shoot Out the Lights album as well as Graham Parker’s new wave cult classic Squeezing Out Sparks.

What might be coolest about this is that this is the second time this crew will be doing Shoot Out the Lights. They played it last November at Tom Clark’s weekly Sunday night Treehouse Americana extravaganza at 2A, so if there were any bugs to work out, those should be history (the whole night was recorded and is up at youtube). Bass player Tom Shad gets credit with coming up with the idea; guitarist Rich Feridun is unbelievable as he channels Thompson’s tortured clusters and spirals. The rest of the band that night included Ward White and Erica Smith on vocals (just watch her wailing her way through Wall of Death, relishing every line); Dave Foster on guitar and vocals; Lizzie Edwards on harmonies; Charlie Roth on keys and Chris Schulz on drums. It’s not clear exactly who’s doing what this time around, but the cast has been expanded to include powerpop maven John Sharples, American Ambulance’s Pete Cenedella, star bassist Lisa Dowling, Matt Keating. and Tim Simmonds of Admiral Porkbrain, among others. Cover is ten bucks. And there will be special guests…but this blog is sworn to secrecy. Hint: some of them, um, might have played on the originals.

Revisiting a Cult Classic Album from John Sharples

Drummers usually have huge address books: the good ones play with lots of different people. That’s true of John Sharples, but his musicianship extends beyond drums to guitar, bass and keyboards. Many of the tracks on his obscure 2004 gem, I Can Explain Everything have him doing both basic and lead tracks on all those instruments plus vocals, but it’s not just a one-man band thing. It’s aged well, a tuneful, eclectic mix of powerpop, riff-rock, oldschool C&W and Americana. More importantly, it has historical significance for documenting the scene centered around Freddy’s Bar, the Atlantic Yards hotspot notoriously driven out in the illegal land grab that spawned the hideous, already decaying new basketball stadium there. Freddy’s lives on, relocated to Brooklyn’s South Slope; likewise, Sharples, a.k.a. Reggie Mental (his alter ego in obscure/legendary faux first-wave punk band the Spunk Lads) has a monthly Saturday night residency there with a rotating cast of great players. He’s there this Saturday night, June 28 at 8 with an intriguing lineup including ex-Aquanettas guitar goddess Debby Schwartz and Celtic punk bandleader Fran Powers.

On the album, Sharples sings with a tough, restless delivery throughout a mix of the kind of diverse material that you might expect from an in-demand drummer. He opens with a rare, absolutely gorgeous Matt Keating janglerock anthem, Mind’s Eye, playing twelve-string guitar over his own rhythm section. Keating himself spices Circus Guy leader Michael Culhane’s pub rock tune The Main Thing with swirling organ, Culhane adding a biting, bluesy guitar solo. Move It, by Ian Samwell, is new wave-tinged powerpop with a snarling Tom Rogers guitar solo. Sharples follows that with Graham Davies’ New Year’s Day, a morose, artsy early 70s-style rainy-day Britfolk tune that wouldn’t be out of place on an early Al Stewart record.

Hub Moore’s Thank You sounds like a cross between the Records and the DB’s, Sharples adding a wry George Harrison quote on slide guitar along with playing most of the other instruments. He gives Johnny Burnette’s Lonesome Tears in My Eyes a Tex-Mex sway and a little wry Orbison on the vocals, then later on tackles Michael Nesmith’s Papa Gene’s Blues as the Lovin’ Spoonful or Commander Cody might have done a vintage country tune.

The best songs come toward the end. The lone Spunk Lads tune here riffs on the Ramones, oi punk and hip-hop, with a chorus that goes “You do the work and I’ll take the credit, that’s just part of my charm.” By contrast, Paula Carino‘s Eminence Rouge (from her days with her band Regular Einstein, who auspiciously reunited for a gig and hopefully more this year) gets a poignant C&W treatment with Jon Graboff’s keening pedal steel and Michele Riganese’s fetching backup vocals. The catchy, anthemic Three More Wishes/Waiting for the Train blends twelve-string jangle with Graboff’s steel lingering in the backbround. Then Sharples follows the rockabilly tune A Big Hunk O’Love with a killer version of Charlie Poole & the North Carolina Ramblers’ haunting 1929 hillbilly anthem Baltimore Fire, sort of like Social Distortion with better vocals.

The album ends with a tricky, clever cover of George Harrison’s Long, Long, Long, Sharples on bass and guitars and the great Americana/jazz chanteuse Erica Smith on harmony vocals. There’s a sweet backstory here – Sharples and Smith married five years after the album came out. Where can you get a copy of this rarity? Well, at one of Sharples’ shows, for starters. And he still plays some of the best songs from it at gigs.