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Tag: erica smith

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

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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.

The Dirty Rollers Pick Up Where Americana Rock Cult Favorites American Ambulance Left Off

American Ambulance seem pretty much finished at this point. But what a ride they had. The New York Americana rockers burned hard for the better part of fifteen years before finally going on hiatus at the end of last year.With a fearlessly populist political sensibility in reaction to the terror of the Bush/Cheney years, they became a lot less country and a lot harder-rocking as the past decade went by.

These days lead guitarist Scott Aldrich is in Rhode Island, and bassist Tim Reedy is plenty busy with his own music. But frontman/guitarist Pete Cenedella and drummer Joe Dessereau are keeping things going as the core of their new band the Dirty Rollers. They’ll be playing a characteristically marathon set starting at 7:30 PM at Hifi Bar on May 18 with plenty of special guests including darkly transcendent singer Erica Smith. Cenedella also promises a number of deviously chosen cover tunes.

Last October at the Treehouse at 2A, American Ambulance played what might have been the band’s final Manhattan show. And it wasn’t sad – it was a pretty wild night. They didn’t waste any time opening with one of the evening’s best numbers, a pouncing blue-flame late-night outlaws-on-the-run scenario, with a long, uneasily minor-key organ solo from guest keyboardist Charly Roth. Cenedella opened the next tune with just vocals and guitar, all tension and expectancy, fueled by Dessereau’s spring-loaded beat,  Aldrich blasting through a couple of terse, vintage Keith Richards-style solos.

Reedy sang the next number, a mashup of classic four-on-the-floor barroom rock and restlessly opaque 90s Wilco: “So many things to forget about,” he intoned sardonically. They shifted gears after that, Roth on piano with the witheringly sarcastic Hey Richard Nixon, the political track that the Stones should have recorded on Exile on Main Street. Memory is a little sketchy on this one – listening back to an audience recording, that similarly smoldering backing vocal section sounds like Smith and her friend in belting soul intensity, Lizzie Edwards.

Down in the Basement, a fond look back at a 70s adolescence spent raising hell back when Brooklyn was a lot grittier, was slower than the band usually did it, Roth’s river of organ adding an extra tinge of pensiveness and soul. He did the same with the number after that after that, a towering, Stonesy soul ballad, Shimmering Rain, fueled by the explosive, gospel-infused crescendos of the backing choir as they took a turn out front. Cenedella went back on the mic as the band ripped through a blistering take of the Beatles’ She Said She Said; later Reedy led the group through a lickety-split, raging cover of Dylan’s It’s All Over Now Baby Blue.

Aldrich’s unhinged bent-note attack against the lush washes of Roth’s organ drove the big anthem after that, a deliriously fond reminiscence of escaping Long Island suburban anomie for Manhattan revelry, a Yes concert (who knew?) and good weed. With the organ at full throttle, Mary Ann Is Hanging On sounded like the Wallflowers on steroids. Then they went back to the honkytonk-inspired flavor of the band’s early years, Roth adding an oldschool Nashville edge on piano behind Aldrich’s slinky lines: :”Silence is the worst thing of all,” Cenedella railed. It’s a good bet they new band will pull out some of these on Wednesday night.

The Best New York Concerts of 2015

On one hand, pulling this page together is always a lot of fun – and there could be a late addition or two, since the year’s not over yet. Of all the year-end lists here, including the Best Songs of 2015 and Best Albums of 2015, this is the most individualistic – everybody’s got their own – and reflective of the various scenes in this blog’s endangered but still vital hometown.

On the other hand, whittling this page down to a manageable number always hurts a little. With apologies to everyone who didn’t make the cut, for reasons of space or otherwise – seriously, nobody’s got the time to sift through the hundred or so concerts that realistically deserve to be on this page – this list feels bare-bones, even with a grand total of 28 shows.

In terms of epic sweep, intensity and gravitas, the year’s best concert was by Iran’s Dastan Ensemble in September at Roulette. This performance marked the New York debut of intense young singer Mahdieh Mohammadkhani, who aired out her powerful voice in a series of original suites on themes of gender equality by members of the ensemble, along with some dusky, austere traditional songs.

Since trying to rank the rest of these shows would be impossible, they’re listed as they happened:

Karla Rose and Mark Sinnis & 825 at the Treehouse at 2A, 2/15/15
The frontwoman of noir rockers Karla Rose & the Thorns in a chillingly intimate duo performance with her Tickled Pinks bandmate Stephanie Layton, followed by the Nashville gothic crooner and his massive oldschool honkytonk band.

Molly Ruth and Lorraine Leckie at the Mercury, 3/12/15
A savage, careening set by the angst-fueled punk-blues siren and her new band, followed by the Canadian gothic songstress and her volcanic group with newly elected Blues Hall of Fame guitarist Hugh Pool.

Lazy Lions and Regular Einstein at Rock Shop, 3/20/15
A feast of lyrical double entendres, edgy new wave and punk-inspired tunesmithing. Jim Allen’s band were playing their first gig since 2008 and picked up like they never stopped; Paula Carino’s recently resurrected original band from the 90s were just as unstoppable.

The Shootout Band and a nameless if good pickup band led by John Sharples at the Mercury, 3/22/15
Cover bands get very little space here for reasons that should be obvious, but the Shootout Band devote themselves to doing a scary-good replication of Richard & Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights, Erica Smith shattering in her role as Linda Thompson and Bubble’s Dave Foster doing a spot-on-Richard. Afterward, multi-instrumentalist John Sharples led a similarly talented bunch song by song through Graham Parker’s cult favorite Squeezing Out Sparks album

Ensemble Hilka, Black Sea Hotel and the Ukrainian Village Voices at the Ukrainian Museum, 4/25/15
In their first performance in over three years (see Lazy Lions above), the Ukrainian choral group ran through a rustic, otherworldly performance of ancient songs from the area around the Chernobyl nuclear disaster site. Innovative Bulgarian/Balkan trio Black Sea Hotel and then the esteemed East Village community singers were no less otherworldly.

Mamie Minch and Laura Cantrell at Union Hall, 5/5/15
Resonator guitar badass and pan-Americana songstress Minch, and then Cantrell – the reigning queen of retro country sounds – each took their elegant rusticity to new places. Cantrell’s final stand of a monthlong residency here, a mighty electric show, was also awfully good.

Emel Mathlouthi and Niyaz at the World Financial Center, 5/8/15
Menacingly triumphant, politically-fueled Arabic art-rock from Mathlouthi and then mystically hypnotic, propulsive Iranian dancefloor grooves from Niyaz.

Rachelle Garniez and Carol Lipnik at Joe’s Pub, 5/14/15
Noir cabaret, stark Americana, soul/gospel and deviously funny between song repartee from multi-instrumentalist Garniez, followed by the magically surreal art-rock of Lipnik and her spine-tingling four-octave voice in a duo show with pianist Matt Kanelos.

Amy Rigby at Hifi Bar, 5/28/15
The final show of her monthlong residency was a trio set with her husband Wreckless Eric and bassist daughter Hazel, a richly lyrical, puristically tuneful, characteristically hilarious career retrospective

Erica Smith, Mary Spencer Knapp, Pete Cenedella, Monica Passin and the Tickled Pinks at the Treehouse at 2A, 5/31/15
Guitarist and purist tunesmith Passin, a.k.a L’il Mo, put this bill together as one of her frequent “Field of Stars” songwriters-in-the-round nights here. Smith was part of a lot of good shows this year because she’s so in demand; this was a rare chance to hear her dark Americana in a solo acoustic setting, joined by eclectic accordionist Knapp (of Toot Sweet), irrepressible American Ambulance frontman Cenedella, and a surprise appearance by coyly edgy swing harmony trio the Tickled Pinks (Karla Rose, Stephanie Layton and Kate Sland).

Jim Allen, Kendall Meade and Ward White at Hifi Bar, 6/15/15
Songsmith Allen doesn’t get around as much as a lot of the other acts here, but he really makes his gigs count: this was a glimpse of his aphoristic, lyrical Americana side. Meade, frontwoman of the late, great, catchy Mascott, held the crowd rapt with her voice and her hooks, then White went for deep literary menace with a little glamrock edge.

Glass House Ensemble and Muzsikas at NYU’s Skirball Center, 6/17/15
Trumpeter Frank London’s collaboration with an all-star Hungarian group, recreating rare pre-Holocaust Jewish sounds, followed by the more stripped-down, rustic but high-voltage Hungarian folk trio.

The Claudettes and Big Lazy at Barbes, 7/11/15
Fiery, sometimes hilariously theatrical barrelhouse piano soul followed by New York’s most menacing, state-of-the-art noir soundtrack band. Big Lazy have an ongoing monthly Barbes residency; their two sets this past May were particularly scary.

The Bright Smoke at the Mercury, 7/25/15
This was the show where intense frontwoman Mia Wilson’s blues-inspired psychedelic art-rock band made the quantum leap and earned comparisons to Joy Division.

Robin Aigner & Parlour Game at Barbes, 8/8/15
The torchy, wickedly lyrical oldtimey/Americana songstress at the top of her captivating game with a trio including poignant, powerful violinist/pianist Rima Fand.

Ember Schrag, Alec K Redfearn & the Eyesores and Escape by Ostrich at Trans-Pecos, 8/23/15
The fearsomely talented Schrag did double duty at this show, first playing her own murderously lyrical, Shakespeare-influenced art-rock with her own band, then switching from guitar to organ in Redfearn’s equally murderous Balkan psychedelic group. Jangly no wave jamband Escape by Ostrich took the evening into the wee hours.

Sweet Soubrette and Kotorino at Joe’s Pub, 9/2/15
This time it was menacing chanteuse Ellia Bisker who did double duty, first fronting her richly horn-driven noir soul band, then adding her voice to the noir latin art-rock of Kotorino.

The Shannon Baker/Erica Seguine Jazz Orchestra at Shrine, 9/7/15
Lots of good jazz shows this past year, none more unpredictably fascinating and lushly gorgeous than the epic performance by this unique, shapeshifting large ensemble uptown.

Kelley Swindall at LIC Bar, 9/16/15
The noir Americana songwriter and murder ballad purveyor usually leads a band; this solo gig was a rare chance to get up close and personal with her creepily philosophical southern gothic narratives

Charming Disaster at Pete’s Candy Store, 9/30/15
Speaking of twisted narratives, this multi-instrumentalist murder ballad/noir song project by Bisker and Morris (look up three notches) never sounded more menacing – and epically inspired – than they did here.

Jenifer Jackson at a house concert on the Upper West Side, 10/1/15
A long-awaited return home by the now Austin-based Americana/jazz/psychedelic songwriter, in a rare trio show with amazingly virtuosic multi-instrumentalist Kullen Fuchs and violinist Claudia Chopek

Liz Tormes and Linda Draper at the American Folk Art Museum, 10/23/15
A rare solo acoustic dark Americana twinbill by two of the most potently, poignantly lyrical songsmiths in that shadowy demimonde.

LJ Murphy & the Accomplices and MacMcCarty & the Kidd Twist Band at Sidewalk, 11/6/15
Murphy has defined New York noir for a long time – and now he’s gone electric, with searing results. McCarty has more of a Celtic folk-rock edge and equally haunting, politically-fueled story-songs.

Karla Rose & the Thorns at the Mercury, 11/17/15
Enigmatic reverb guitar-fueled Twin Peaks torch songs, stampeding southwestern gothic bolero rock, ominously echoey psychedelia, venomous saloon blues and stiletto between-song repartee from another artist who made multiple appearances on this list because everybody wants her to sing with them.

The Sometime Boys at Freddy’s, 11/20/15
One of New York’s most individualistic, catchy, groove-driven bands ran through a sizzling set of haunting, gospel-inflected ballads, jaunty newgrass, acoustic funk and blue-flame guitar psychedelia

Amanda Thorpe, Mary Lee Kortes, Lianne Smith and Debby Schwartz at the Treehouse at 2A, 11/22/15
Impresario Tom Clark remarked that there might never have been so much talent onstage here as there was this particular evening, with noir Britfolk songwriter Thorpe, the soaring and savagely lyrical Kortes, the ever-darker and mesmerizing Smith and the powerful, dreampop/Americana-influenced Schwartz. For that matter, there have been few nights on any stage anywhere in this city with this much lyrical and vocal power, ever.

Like last year, the numbers here suggest many interesting things. Eighteen of these shows were in Manhattan, eight were in Brooklyn and two in Queens, which is open to multiple interpretations. More instructive is the fact that half of the twenty-eight were free shows where the audience passed around a tip bucket rather than paying a cover at the door. Most interestingly, women artists dominated this list, even more so than they did last year: an astonishing 39 of the 53 acts here were either women playing solo or fronting a group. That’s a trend. You’re going to see more of that here on the Best Albums of 2015 and Best Songs of 2015 pages at the end of this month.

Searing Yet Subtle, Southern Blues-Infused Intensity from Lizzie and the Makers

Lizzie Edwards is one of the most instantly recognizable, individualistic singers in the New York rock scene. With her velvet voice, she delivers a wallop: there are few singers in any style of music who can be as simultaneously pillowy and ferocious. Although steeped in blues belting, she’s not derivative or trying to be either Janis or Robert Plant: she’s just herself. She and her first-class band the Makers have a brand-new album, Fire From the Heart of Man streaming at Spotify and an album release show on Nov 12 at 8:50 PM (not 9 – at least that’s what the club calendar says) at the Shop, 243 Starr St. (Wyckoff/Irving) in Bushwick. Cover is $10; take the L to Jefferson St.

The album opens with Song 3.5 and its catchy, steadily descending, blues-fueled melody, Edwards’ thunder references paired with resonant slide guitar by Jason Loughlin (of Jessie Kilguss‘ band and many other first-class projects). The Wrong Side is a soul/blues tune in the same vein as mid-90s, peak-era Robert Cray, Rob Clores’ organ adding slithery textures in tandem with James Winwood’s simmering guitar lines. From there, Edwards goes into seething mode with Fight Song – “I’m ready” is the mantra – Winwood channeling David Gilmour with his biting, aching solo.

Monster builds from syncopation to a stomp, with another tasty contrast between rippling organ and burning guitar multitracks. Edwards’ assertion is that even if you fight with monsters, and manage to fend them off, you don’t necessarily become one. Hopeless opens with a hypnotic intro rising to a pounding but spare groove with the organ, and a mighty chorus that gives Edwards a launching pad for some of her most intense pyrotechnics here: “Can can you turn me away again?” she asks with a towering angst.

The gentler, organ-fueled, 60s Memphis-tinged undercurrent of It’s Not Me, It’s You masks the understated bitterness of the lyrics. The pummeling rhythm section – Brent Bass on…you guessed it and Bryan Bisordi on drums – opens the propulsive Good Song, Clores’ rippling solo handing off to Winwood’s more aggressive spirals. It’s everything that’s good about southern rock without the cheesy stoner vibe or endless noodling.

Edwards saves her most potently plaintive vocal for Take Me Back, with its brooding, heartbroken vibe. The most psychedelic track is Too Late, part noir soul, part psychedelic Led Zep at their most low-key. The album winds up with its darkest, most surreal anthem, Sleep It Off and its Abbey Road Beatlisms. Watch for this album at the end of next month on the Best Albums of 2015 page.

If you dig this band, you’d be missing out if you didn’t also get to know Edwards’ fierce, harmony-fueled gospel side project Lizzie and the Sinners with Erica Smith, Sarah Wise, Charley Roth, Jahn Xavier, Chris Schultz, and Tom Shad.

Robin Aigner Brings Her Bittersweet, Richly Lyrical, Picturesque Americana to Barbes

Robin Aigner is one of the most darkly entertaning performers in New York. Long sought after as both a frontwoman and harmony singer – her time in chamber pop luminaries Pinataland ought to be at leat semi-legendary – she’s just as strong a songwriter. Her music draws equal on 19th century folk, Prohibition-era swing and oldtime hillbilly songs, with the occasional detour into Balkan sounds. And she can be hilarious: her lyrics are all about subtext, and double entendres, and history. She’s written about molasses floods in WWI-era Boston, inept Williamsburg buskers and imagined romances between such improbable figures as Irving Berlin and the first woman to come in through Ellis Island (she was Irish). And Aigner is an unreconstructed romantic – her characters get all bumped and bruised no matter what century they’re in, but they don’t quit. She and her charming chamber pop band Parlour Game are playing Barbes on August 8 at 8 PM, followed at 10 by Banda de los Muertos, a supergroup of NYC jazz types playing rousingly anthemic Sinaloa-style Mexican ranchera music for brass band.

Aigner is also an impresario: her previous gig was a mind-bogglingly eclectic, surprising, sometimes downright haunting night of Tom Waits covers at Freddy’s, featuring a diverse cast of characters including but hardly limited to Mamie Minch, Serena Jost, Pierre de Gaillande, Brooke Watkins, Dave Benjoya, Andrew Sovine and numerous others. She also put together the show before that, a magical night at the Jalopy with folk noir songwriter Erica Smith, rockabilly and retro guitar maven Monica Passin a.k.a. L’il Mo and devious accordion-and-violin duo the Wisterians. “Every month is World Wine Month,” Aigner announced to the audience at the Jalopy gig, and while she didn’t indulge in more than a couple of glasses during her set, that comment set the tone. Playing solo on guitar, she opened with Delores from Florence, an allusive yet minutely detailed tale of transcontinental love gone wrong set to a soaringly cantering, flamenco-tinged waltz.

After that, she did See You Around, a broodingly pulsing, wryly wistful number told from the point of view of a woman struggling to get past being smitten by a guy who clearly has no use for her in daylight. Pearl Polly Adler – an innuendo-packed shout-out to the legendary FDR-era bordello owner – looked back to early 20th century pop, when 90% of the stuff coming out of New York had a tasty, bracing klezmer tinge. For that matter, so did Kiss Him When He’s Down, a jaunty endorsement for giving a roofie to your significant other – or insignificant other – in order to get what you want.

Switching to uke, Aigner drew plenty of laughs with Crazy, a hilariously detailed litany of the kind of weirdos a woman can date if she sees fit. She went for darker ambience with the plaintive, alienated war survivor’s tale El Paraiso, then picked things up again with the jaunty Irving and Annie – Annie thinks Irving can play sonatas (he can’t) and later on in the song, she references Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island), which used to serve as a quasi-quarantine and was the site of one of New York’s first hospitals. After another moody, low-key number, Aigner teamed with Watkins on accordion to wind up her set with Greener, a soaringly anxious, bitter post-party alienation anthem that works on innumerable levels. If we’re lucky, she’ll play some and maybe all of these songs at Barbes.

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.

An Auspicious Kickoff to Daphne Lee Martin’s Late Winter Tour

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.

Love Camp VII – Their Brilliant Swan Song?

If this is the last Love Camp 7 album – and it might be – the long-running New York psychedelic rockers went out on a high note. Aside from a brief set by two longtime members – frontman/guitarist Dann Baker and bassist Bruce Hathaway – at a Manhattan bar last year, and an upcoming cd release show by the three surviving bandmates (guitarist Steve Antonakos joining Baker and Hathaway) at the Parkside this Saturday, this looks like the end for one of the most unpredictably brilliant rock acts to ever come out of this town. Despite the tragic and unexpected 2010 death of drummer Dave Campbell – whose nimble, shapeshifting, jazz- and Brazilian-influenced rhythms in many ways defined this band – they have a brilliant album to show for some of their last studio sessions. Titled Love Camp VII, it features the full band playing fourteen songs (including a secret track), all using Beatles albums as their titles.

While there are plenty of wry and lovingly pilfered riffs here, this isn’t a Beatles parody. Nor is it a homage in the strict sense of the word: when the Fab Four first make an actual appearance, it’s after the band has broken up, a rather cruel look back on what John, Paul, George and Ringo’s solo careers should have been (ok, Ringo gets a pass) but weren’t. Rather, this album is sort of a history of the Beatles era, that band somewhere in the picture, usually in the background. Which makes sense, given Baker’s fondness for historical themes (particularly on the group’s fifth and arguably best album, 2007’s Sometimes Always Never).

For all the stylistic and tempo changes here, this is basically a janglerock record with numerous breaks for psychedelic mayhem. Meet the Beatles opens the album, taking a brightly jangly Merseybeat melody and twisting the rhythm, with a big choir of voices, a fragment of baroque guitar, and a rolling, tumbling Campbell solo all together in the middle, one right after the other. That’s Love Camp 7 in a nutshell. The Beatles’ Second Album is cast as a shuffling, harmony-driven reminiscence by a kid whose time in a dysfunctional family is soothed by that particular soundtrack. Arguably the funniest track here, A Hard Day’s Night subtly observes how the Beatles changed everybody’s lives, in this case the members of the Byrds (back when Jim McGuinn was in the band – the lyrics are priceless). It’s the most Spinal Tap moment here, in a comedic sense at least.

Beatles ’65 evokes the Hollies with its bracing major/minor changes, then shifts suddently from cheery Merseybeat to an ornately artsy anthem and then back again. Beatles VI completely switches gears, an unexpectedly grinding, proto-metal heavy R&B number, like the Pretty Things circa 1968, that cynically celebrates the “media saturation” that the Beatles spearheaded. With its layers of ironically blithe harmonies, Help imagines what Lennon might have done without Yoko, George without Krishna, Paul if he hadn’t stolen ideas from Denny Laine, and Ringo….”help me understand how he ended up so much the same.” It’s a beautiful ballad, something that Roy Wood could have written: reputedly Erica Smith (who’s opening the Saturday show at 8:30) has a version of this song in the can that’s even better.

Rubber Soul starts out as a look back at Love Camp 7’s trickily rhythmic, often dissonant earlier work and then rises to a roaring art-rock crescendo complete with horns, while Revolver cleverly recasts a summer pool party as portent of radical times to come. Ironically, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band has more in common musically with earlier Beatles sounds, although at this point marijuana finally makes an appearance: “The moon will soon be manned; brave new world’s at hand,” Baker observes, not without apprehension. A somewhat radically reconstructed skiffle tune, Magical Mystery Tour explores Baker’s first encounter with the album – in a Sav-On department store at the corner of Laurel Canyon and Ventura Boulevard in Los Angeles.

The Beatles is the second proto-metal track here and also only the second to (briefly) chronicle the band, in this case what seems to be their eventual demise. The most musically diverse track here, Let It Be juxtaposes hardcore punk with a coldly sarcastic pop melody and a blatant I Am the Walrus quote. The saddest track (and ostensibly the final one) is Abbey Road, gently quoting the introduction to the Cure’s Boys Don’t Cry and later the Youngbloods’ Come Together as the 70s creep in, “Lying in their beds, a fearful throbbing in their heads, wishing they were dead; nobody cares.” The mystery track, The Beatles’ Story, is a perfect match of pensive yet optimistically jangly, Arthur Lee-esque pop that ends the album on a less than optimistic note: arguably, being able to live vicariously through the Beatles is a lot more fun than actually being one.