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Americana Crooner Jack Grace’s Long-Awaited New Album Might Be His Best Yet

Back in the radio-and-records era, conventional wisdom was that a band’s first album was always their best. The theory was that in order to get a record deal, a group had to pull together all their most impressive songs. These days, that theory falls apart since artists can release material at their own pace rather than having to constantly deliver new product to the boss at the record label.

Still, how many artists do you know whose material is stronger than ever after twenty years of incessant touring and putting out the occasional album? Crooner/guitarist Jack Grace, arguably New York’s foremost and funniest pioneer of Americana and urban country, is one of that rare breed. His long, long awaited new Eric Ambel-produced album Everything I Say Is a Lie is arguably the best thing Grace has ever done, due out on April 28 and presumably streaming at Soundcloud at that point. Grace and his band are playing the album release show at around 8 PM on April 27 at Hifi Bar.

Interestingly, this is Grace’s most straight-ahead rock record to date: there’s plenty of C&W influence but no straight-up honkytonk this time around. It’s also more straightforwardly serious than Grace is known to be, especially onstage. As usual, the band is fantastic: a swinging rhythm section of ex-wife and Pre-War Pony Daria Grace on bass, with drummers Russ Meissner and Diego Voglino, plus Ambel contributing plenty of his signature, counterintuitive guitar and Bill Malchow on keys.

Driven by a catchy, tremoloing guitar riff, the album’s first song Burned by the Moonlight is a garage-soul number spiced with some characteristically savage lead work from Ambel. Grace’s voice has an unexpected, angry edge: “Let the wolves tear you heart out every night,” he rasps. Kanye West (I Hear That You’re the Best) is Grace at his most hilarious. “Taylor Swift, I hear you’ve got a gift, I don’t want to hear any more about it…Kardashians are so beautiful, Lindsay Lohan’s problems are so real.” As good as the lyrics are, this slowly swaying late Beatlesque anthem’s best joke is when it becomes a singalong.

Run to Me follows the kind of allusively brooding desert rock tangent that Grace was often going off on five or ten years ago. “Evil has connections we can use,” he muses. Being Poor, a song for our time if there ever was one, has a stark, rustic Steve Earle folk-blues vibe: “It’s all got you down on your knees, no power to question why.”

Bad Wind Blowing has a tense, simmering roadhouse rock sway and a souful vocal cameo from Norah Jones: “Lean against the wind or get your ass blown to the ground.” Then Grace shifts gears into wry charmer mode with the steady backbeat Highway 61 rock of I Like You.

He sings the almost cruelly sarcastic title ballad over Malchow’s Lennonesque piano; Ambel’s twelve-string guitar break is just as surreal. Again, this song’s best joke is a musical one. By contrast, the album’s most crushingly relevant cut is Get Out. “We really used to try to get out of Brooklyn, now everybody’s trying to get in,” Grace laments over a stark banjo/guitar backdrop. It’ll resonate with anybody who remembers the days (ten years ago if anybody’s counting) before every entitled, recently relocated yuppie tourist in New York was starting a band named after this city’s second-most-expensive borough.

The album closes on a similarly somber note with So We Run, an unexpected and successful detour into early 70s style psychedelic Britfolk. Good to see a guy who’s been one of the most reliably good tunesmiths in town still at it, and at the top of his game.

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Dark Crooner Mark Sinnis Releases His Catchiest, Hardest Country Record

There’s not a little irony in that baritone crooner Mark Sinnis’ catchiest and hardest country record comes out of the most difficult and arguably most complicated time in his life as a recording artist. His latest album, One Red Rose Among the Dying Leaves – streaming at Spotify – picks up the doomed tangent he began in 2012 with It’s Been a Long Cold Hard Lonely Winter. At that point, his marriage was on life support this one traces the despair that followed in its wake, yet paradoxically it’s Sinnis’ most hopeful album ever. Talk about snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.

As you might expect from Sinnis’ most traditional country album, there’s plenty of reverence for and references to to a century of tradition. The Elvis homage In Tupelo opens it; a homage to New York’s one and only country station, 1050 WHN, which aired at that frequency on the AM dial from 1941 to 1987, closes it on a similarly nostalgic note.

In between, there’s On This Thanksgiving Day, a cruel Johnny Cash-flavored anthem chronicling Sinnis’ departure/eviction from his Westchester home (he’s since resettled in North Carolina). There’s the towering, angst-fueled, Orbison-esque bolero that serves as the album’s title traack, inspired by an actual flower Sinnis discovered the day he moved out of his home in the frigid winter of 2014. It graces the album’s back cover.

Why Should I Cry Over You is a brisk, propulsive minor-key honkytonk blues number. There are a couple of older songs dating from Sinnis’ days fronting gothic-tinged art rock band Ninth House, notably the haunting When the Sun Bows to the Moon – “You create your own atmosphere, breathe your own tainted air” – and the creeping, low-key, doomed Jealousy.

There’s surprisingly upbeat, optimistic material here too. Love, Love Love (You’re Such a Four Letter Word) is a funny and wickedly catchy update on Don Gibson-style 1960s country-pop. Five Days, Seven Nights looks back to the roots of alt-country and bands like the Mekons, but with more finesse. Where It All Ends, a 70s style country ballad, serves as the album’s quietly triumphant coda.

Siting at the Heartbreak Saloon wouldn’t be out of place in the classic-era Merle Haggard songbook. And the album’s best song, Tough Love Is All She’s Got, is one of the all-time greatest kiss-off anthems ever written. See, on the surface, this retro chick – as he tells it, Sinnis’ ex – looks like a classic car from 1956 or so. But wait – pop the hood! Fans of classic country from Lefty Frizzell, to Waylon and Willie, to Jack Grace will love this album A period-perfect and smart, tersely recorded performance from multi-instrumentalists Stephen Gara-  who plays everything from banjo to bagpipes – ass well as W. D. Fortay on lead guitar, Ken Lockwood on fiddle, Brian Aspinwall on pedal steel and trumpet, Lee Compton on lead trumpet, Mike Gross on bass and Michael Lillard on drums.

A Look Over the Shoulder at Americana Crooner Jack Grace’s Darkest Record

Since the early zeros, Jack Grace has been one of the bright lights of the New York Americana sceene. He tours constantly, puts out geat records, gets his songs in a lot of movies, is a hell of a guitarist and with that big baritone of his, can croon with anybody. He booked Rodeo Bar for years, until that late, lamented venue was forced out by a rent increase – and whose space is still unoccupied, two years later. Grace has a new album in the works, ostensibly titled Everything I Say Is a Lie. His next New York gig is at Bar Chord in Ditmas Park at 10 PM on Dec 10, and that is the truth.

Grace’s most recent album, The Money’s Gone Away – some of which is at Grace’s Soundcloud page– is where he really concretized the latin sound he was drifting toward on the one before that, 2010’s Drinking Songs for Lovers. But that’s a funny album and for the most part, this one’s dark and serious. The album’s title track is an uneasy cha-cha with creepy vibraphone lingering in the background, a grimly allusive early teens nocturne from when it was clear that the divide between rich and poor was only getting worse.

Hard Times All Around is the kind of midtempo oldschool C&W numbers Grace writes so well, backlit with keening pedal steel and his own stark guitar lines over the swinging rhythm section of his bassist wife Daria Grace and drummer Russ Meissner. Stark violin opens the tango-inflected Jack/Daria duet Warm Rock in the Sun, a horn-spiced cautionary tale.

Maybe Ya Wanna waltzes morosely out of a moody flamenco intro, a lament for missed chances that hits a bitter peak capped off by a bitingly psychedelic Grace guitar solo. The album’s haunting centerpiece, Don’t Run Out of Gas rises from spare, fingerpicked southwestern gothic to a towering backbeat drive:

Smoke has yet to clear
Battle was fought, I don’t think it was won…
Don’t run out of gas
My advice to you
Try to get there fast
For your troubles

With its creepy, icy chorus-box guitar and tuba pulse, Bothered to Think works the kind of blackly sardonic. bluesy Tom Waits territory that Grace dove headfirst into on his 2007 album The Martini Cowboy. Ghostly steel guitar mingles with spiky ukulele and terse violin in Polenca’s Blues, a windswept cinematic theme, followed by Poor Boy. a swinging 99-percenter lament.

Just when you might think that I Think I Broke My Heart is a mellow slice of dadrock, Grace hits a minor chord and runs his vocals through a vintage chorus pedal: “It hurts just to breathe,” he shivers.

Another real gem, the wistful Remember When We Were in Love, blends vintage Memphis soul and artsy late Beatles unease. By contrast, We Made It harks back to the surrealistically swinging oldschool C&W Grace was writing after his cult favorite 90s jamband, Steak, went on hiatus (they’re back on Dec 23 at the Bitter End, of all places)..

The only cover here is the Nancy Sinatra/Lee Hazlewood hit Summer Wine – it’s not awful, but there’s no getting away from the Vegas cheesiness. The album winds up with Lobster, Steak and Seafood, one of those silly, boisterous vamps that Grace likes to jam out live, a shout-out to roadside diners, which as dubious as they be, still beat the hell out of Olive Garden.

Jim Kweskin and Geoff Muldaur: Just As Relevant As They Were Fifty Years Ago

Jim Kweskin‘s Jug Band sounded like they were as old as the songs they played. But that was the point.

They were hippies reprising the ribald, raucous sounds of folk music that went back as far as a century before them, sometimes to the consternation of the establishment. Over half a century after the peak of his band’s late 60s popularity, Kweskin and his bandmate Geoff Muldaur (father to Clare Muldaur of the brilliant art-rock band Clare & the Reasons) have a new album, Penny’s Farm – streaming at Spotify – and a release show tonight, Oct 4 at 7 PM at Joe’s Pub. Cover is steep, $30, but you could be witness to history. Who ever thought that Kweskin’s Jug Band, or any facsimile thereof, would ever take the stage again, let alone in their old Village stomping ground?

This isn’t the original Kweskin band lineup from all those years ago. Instead, the album features top-tier Americana talent including steel guitarist and dobro sorceress Cindy Cashdollar, blues fiddler Suzy Thompson, and singer Juli Crockett of the Evangenitals. The voices of both Kweskin and Muldaur have weathered over the years, but that’s to be expected, and if anything, enhances the songs’ rustic appeal. The music here has a spare, front-porch feel; in case you were wondering, there is no jug in this band.

Diamond Joe, the album’s opening cut, pairs Thompson’s fiddle with Kweskin’s wry vocal, Cashdollar’s dobro filling in the spaces elegantly. Likewise, the band gives The Boll Weevil a low-key, sly feel, signifying like crazy through this thinly veiled slave lament. And the Celtic-tinged title track, Down on Penny’s Farm resonates just as much as it did a hundred years ago, a grim tale of foreclosure and destitution.

The guitars in the swaying country blues Sweet to Mama are panned left and right to give the song an unexpectedly rich, lush feel, which the band reprises in the balmy 19th century reminiscence My Mary. And the interplay between the bandleaders’ fingerpicking in Fishin’ Blues is just plain gorgeous.

Early zeros New York Americana fans will remember the ballad Louis Collins (also known as Angels Laid Him Away) from the morose Jack Grace version. The band picks up the pace with the swinging ragtime-flavored Just a Little While to Stay Here, which they replicate a little later with the jaunty Downtown Blues, which Thompson caps off with a lusciously shivery solo.

Musically speaking, the album’s high point is The Cuckoo, reinvented as a somber, Richard Thompson-esque dirge awash in tersely purposeful guitar interweave. Kweskin continues to play his cards close to his vest throughout the surreal guitar cascades of the murder ballad 99 Year Blues; then the band waltzes with a vivid weariness through Tennessee Blues. The album winds up with a live take of the murder ballad Frankie, a reminder of how magically the band can recreate this stuff onstage. There’s also a vintage children’s song as well as a bizarre number in fractured Spanglish. Authenticity is a dubious concept these days, but this further cements the whole band’s claim to a vast, centuries-old heritage.

Jack Grace Puts on a Clinic in Latin-Inflected Surrealist Americana Tunesmithing and Entertainment at Barbes

Jack Grace was a good lead guitarist ten years ago. He’s a brilliant one now. Twenty years of constant touring will do that to you. Grace is best known for his surreal, LMFAO sense of humor and his funny songs that veer from exuberant vintage C&W, to Waits noir blues, to simmering southwestern gothic anthems. Leading a trio last night at Barbes, Grace put on a clinic in sizzling guitar and Americana songcraft. This was his latin set, propelled by drummer Russ Meissner’s expertly accented shuffle grooves. A flick of the cymbals, a rattle of the traps, a sudden gunshot rimshot, he made them all count. And maybe just coincidentally, it was a bittersweetly nostalgic show, at least as far as evoking the days ten years ago when Grace was booking the old Rodeo Bar, and could be found playing Lakeside Lounge on random Saturday nights when he wasn’t on the road.

They opened with Put on Your Shoes, Moonshine, a pensive, lyrically torrential desert rock anthem. Next was a boisterous trucker song peppered with filthy CB slang, the song’s chatty narrator wasting no time in explaining that the parking lot he’s spending the night is is so lame that the only hooker working it is a guy. “People that I can’t relate to don’t understand my ways.” Grace groused in Don’t Wanna Work Today, an uneasy, bluesy, minor-key Tex-Mex number.

“This next song is about snorting cocaine in the bathroom. There are plenty of places where you can do cocaine…but here in New York, the bathroom is where we do it,” Grace deadpanned in his cat-ate-the-canary, Johnny Cash-influenced baritone and then launched into Cry, a brooding minor-key cha-cha that swung from sly drug-fueled optimism to the despondency that sets in like a giant cat over the city the afternoon after a night of too many lines and too much tekillya. Speaking of which, he played his own version of Tequila – a dancing border-rock tune, not the surf rock instrumental – where the “lie, lie, lie” of the chorus spoke for itself.

The trio moved methodically from the muted country anomie of South Dakota to the sparse minor-key Waits blues strut Sugarbear. Throughout the set, Grace segued into deadpan country verses of familiar Led Zep songs, a trope he’s been working for years, more now since his side project Van Hayride – known for their even funnier covers of pre-Sammy Hagar Van Halen and other loud, cheesy stuff from the 80s – is temporariliy on the shelf. One of the night’s funniest moments was when Grace his his flange pedal, and without missing a beat, segued into a note-for-note cover of Pink Floyd’s Breathe, complete with a searing, doublespeed, savagely tremolo-picked guitar solo that would have made David Gilmour jealous.

The title track to Grace’s forthcoming album Everything I Say Is a Lie turned out to be a slowly swaying mashup of doo-wop, early 70s Willie Nelson and late 60s Jimmy Web balladry. Been So Long Since I Bothered to Think, an unselfconsciously haunting ba-bump bolero reminded just how dark and intense Grace can get when he’s in the mood. “In middle school I learned to criticize, the world’s broken down and compromised, “ he lamented – and then took a hit of beer and gargled a couple of choruses. Nobody can ever say this guy’s not entertaining.

The band went back to pensive, rustically bluesy ambience with Rotary Phone, a brooding, metaphorically loaded tale about getting old and out of touch, then some comic relief with a wry medley of Zep, Nirvana and Doors riffs. The set continued with a seriously bizarre C&W version of a Talking Heads song, then the absurdist mariachi funk of It Was a Really Bad Year – “A song that gets a lot of airplay this time of the year,” Grace mused – then a moody, pretty straight-up cover of Hank Williams’ I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive. They closed with Big Bear, an electrified bluegrass tune from the film Super Troopers. Grace is at Coyote Ugly Saloon on First Ave. just south of 10th St. – who have bands now – on December 29 at around 9, then he’s playing a New Year’s Eve show in Saratoga Springs and returns to Coyote Ugly on January 5.

Blues Guitar Maven Will Scott Makes His Way Back to His Old Brooklyn Stomping Ground

Will Scott was in goodnatured entertainer mode yesterday evening at this year’s Brooklyn Americana Festival, staged in Brooklyn Bridge Park by 68 Jay Street Bar impresario and distinctive British-American folk song stylist Jan Bell. “I’m the only guy who ever left Brooklyn for Indiana and lost weight,” he joked. Which is funnier than you might think, considering that his rangy build never seems to have felt the effect of all those late-night whiskeys during the weekly residency he held for years up the block at 68 Jay. This one of a handful of return shows over the past year was especially fun since he was playing solo acoustic – he’s always been more of a band guy. For another, he got to air out just about every one of his many blues styles: swooping, animated Robert Johnson-style slides; intricate fingerpicking; purist delta blues, and Bible Belt gothic gospel. And lots of grim fire-and-brimstone biblical imagery, and one absolutely sizzling, shredding display of tremolopicking where he really took his time chainsawing all the way to the top of the fretboard. The one style he didn’t show off, one that he’s exceptionally good at, was hypnotic Mississippi hill country blues. But you can only fit so much stylistic cliff-jumping into a 45-minute set.

Scott explained that Gnawbone – the raw, roughhewn title track from his 2009 electric blues album – was named for a town in his home state. “They wanted to name it after Narbonne, in France,” Scott explained, “But the best the hoosiers could do was Gnawbone. I figured I’d name my album that since there was no way I’d ever end up playing there,” he explained. He paused. “Well…I just did.” Apparently the people in town didn’t take offense.

Scott eventually brought up Bell, his longtime collaborator and partner for some harmony vocals on a high-energy, anthemic take of See That My Grave Is Kept Clean, which turned out to be pretty amazing. See, most backup singers will go way up high and wail around on the blue notes. Bell did the opposite: if memory serves right, she went up an octave above the fifth and then made her way down. The effect was as original as it was unselfconsciously chilling: somebody transcribe that so other singers can do that too! And it’s worth mentioning that they way they did the song, looking back toward gospel rather than the Blind Lemon Jefferson recording that Dylan based his on, harked back to a very early version better known as One Kind Favor.

The festival winds up today, September 27 with a ton of music, starting at eleven in the morning at Superfine in Dumbo with the mando and guitar-driven Demolition String Band, eclectic retro Americana/doo-wop singer Willy Gantrim, and honkytonk bandleader/bassist Abby Hollander. Then at 4 PM there’s a rare solo vocals-and-accordion set by charismatic Romany chanteuse and song reinventor Eva Salina followed by the Jack Grace Band playing their boisterously funny oldschool 60s C&W and brooding southwestern gothic, under the archway below the Manhattan Bridge: if you’re in the neighborhood, you’ll hear it. And Scott makes a fond return appearance at 68 Jay at 7 PM.

Lachlan Bryan & the Wildes Bring Their Purist, Eclectic Americana All the Way from Australia

Much as the annual CMJ festival has been the butt of umpteen jokes for the last couple of decades – including a lengthy one from this blog – there always end up being a few gems amidst the detritus. And because CMJ is so scattered, and so many of the shows are so poorly attended, there’s usually no competition, and no cover charge, for the choicest acts. Lachlan Bryan is one of them. The Australian Americana bandleader/songwriter is about to tackle a marathon Dives of New York schedule with his excellent, purist band the Wildes, no doubt showcasing material from their new album Black Coffee (streaming at Bandcamp). They’re supposed to be at Bowery Electric tonight, even though theyr’e not on the club’s calendar. They’re at the small room at the Rockwood tomorrow Oct 16 at midnight, at the Path Cafe on the 17th at 10, at Goodbye Blue Monday on the 18th, also at 10 and then at Fifth Estate Bar in Park Slope on the 19th sometime after 9 (neither Bryan’s site nor the bar’s site have any info). Then the band are off to Richmond, where they will no doubt go over well.

One of the things that’s most immediately striking about Bryan is how down-to-earth and conversational his vocals are. They be some bo-ahs from Plain Failed, Noo Jers-ay who be doin’ this here Amereecana mus-eck, yes’m, ayund they talkin’ lahk they growed up in Alleybam even though they nevuh spent a lick o’tahm they-uh, nosuh. Bryan is not one of those bo-ahs. And he’s full of surprises. The album’s opening track, 309, sounds at first like it’s a pretty straight-up, electrified ripoff of a famous Dylan song, but it turns out to be a murder ballad. That’s a good idea of where this guy is going.

The second cut, Big Fish, mines a similar minor-key, bluesy feel, Bryan cynically contemplating a tug-of-war between the sexes where guys who don’t exactly take the moral high road – his protagonist included – lead unsuspecting women down the road to ruin. They follow that with You, Me & the Blues, a motoring post-Chuck Berry shuffle in the same vein as what Nick Lowe was doing with Rockpile thirty years ago. Then they go back to dark Americana with the paisley underground ballad Death Wish Country, spare dobro intertwining with lingering electric lead lines.

Dragging My Chain works as a mix of noir soul and blue-flame C&W, Memphis meets Nashville circa 1964. The album’s title track goes back to the neo-Dylan, but channeled through the wry prism of Jack Grace. The optimistic Change in the Wind brings to mind early 70s Kris Kristofferson, contrasting with the album’s most searing track, The CEO Must Die, a brutally insightful look at the psychology of going postal.
The album winds up with Kiss Me or Kill Me, a brooding oldschool country tune not unlike the Flatlanders, and then the pedal steel-driven ballad Forty Days and Nights. New Yorkers who want to see Americana done with soul, and purpose, and no wasted notes, ought to see this guy while he’s here.

Lurid, Lyrical Noir Americana from the Coney Island Cowboy

Baritone country crooner Sean Kershaw‘s new album The Aussie Sessions is arguably his best – and he’s been writing good songs for a long time. His first New York band, the Blind Pharaohs, hung out on the shadowy side of rockabilly. Since then, Kershaw has gone in more of a classic honkytonk and western swing direction with his band the New Jack Ramblers. This one goes deep into the noir, from Texas to Tennessee – except that it was recorded in that hotbed of edgy music, Melbourne, Australia. This sounds like a live-in-the-studio recording, Kershaw alternating between electric and acoustic guitar and backed by Justin Rudge on guitar, “Sweet Felicia” on bass and harmony vocals and Scott Bennett on drums.

The opening track, Grass Is Always Bluer is killer, a creepy, snarling, galloping, aphoristic southwestern gothic tale set in the here and now. It sounds like a Blind Pharaohs number. Kershaw traces his couple-on-the-lam story to this:

I’m blessed to roam this land of ours where all roads lead to Rome
And every frequency takes you straight to the Twilight Zone
All the green and empty spaces are full of my favorite things
And all the colors tell me true just what this season brings

Cleaning My Gun reminds of Jack Grace’s recent detour into Nashville gothic, and it’s even creepier. “When they pry open my fingers in the morning, will they say this whole thing happened without warning?” Kershaw muses. The contrast between the echoey electric guitar with the brushy acoustic and the cymbals enhances the menace. The straight-up catchiest song on the album is Daydream Deceiver, which is Tex-Mex with a lot of early Elvis flavor, a kiss-off directed at a fair-weather girl.

Kershaw is at his aphoristic best as a rockabilly prowler in Gigglin Madman Blues, set in a now-bulldozed, twisted Coney Island of the mind. “To believe the hype you’ve gotta have some hype to believe in,” he intones sarcastically. The band takes a turn into gritty swamp rock with So Proud, which could be Steve Wynn covering Creedence, with a couple of long, spacy stoner blues guitar solos. The gleefully lurid Pain the Town Red is ghoulabilly as Bushwick Bill might do it  – musically, it’s the missing link between Stray Cat Strut and LJ Murphy‘s only slightly less twisted Skeleton Key. And the final track, Forever My Darling, with its tersely unwinding, apprehensive guitar and bolero-tinged shuffle groove, could be Kershaw’s Don’t Fear the Reaper. Kershaw brings all this menace and gallows humor as well as some more upbeat but similarly sardonic songs to Rodeo Bar on New Year’s Eve starting at around 9.

Recent NYC Concerts: Clearing the Decks

A cynic might ask why a music blog should cover concerts at all. After all, who cares, other than the band, and the people who were there?

Consider that whether we admit it or not, everyone who runs a music blog is an advocate: for themselves, maybe, or for a particular style of music, or for certain artists. The point of this blog is to keep an eye on the most intelligent things happening under the radar in what’s left of the New York rock world, without losing sight of what’s happening outside. Obviously, if Radiohead comes to town, that’s news – but everybody else is going to cover it, so New York Music Daily probably wouldn’t. Good acts with a global fan base have thousands of advocates; good acts with a smaller following deserve one. That’s where this blog comes in. And while it may be true that the death of the album turned out to be an old wives’ tale, it’s still true that there are many more great artists who aren’t making albums, or at least as many of them, as those who are. And you can go see them! That’s the point of all this.

Jerome O’Brien may not be making albums, but he’s making singles: elegant acoustic remakes of songs originally done by his well-loved band the Dog Show, as well as new material, all up at his Vibedeck page. Beginning in July of last year, he had a monthly residency at Zirzamin. His next-to-last show, played solo on acoustic twelve-string guitar,  was characteristically intriguing. He began with a spiky, puckish, fingerpicked instrumental inspired by the late, great Joe Ben Plummer, for whom O’Brien played bass in Douce Gimlet. Plummer was a hell of a guitarist (and no slouch on keyboards and saxophone either), and a diehard believer in the theory that the ability to fingerpick a guitar separates the men from the boys.

From there, O’Brien moved through a mix of old Dog Show favorites. The venomous, bluesy 6/8 kiss-off anthem Diamonds and Broken Glass, the caffeinated, politicallly-fueled mod rock broadside Hold Me Down, the apprehensive pre-election reflection Black Eye and a similarly wary, similarly catchy new song were highlights of the set. With Zirzamin shuttered as of last night, a small army of good veteran New York rockers have been left without a musical home. Where they’ll end up, and where O’Brien’s residency might pick up, remains to be seen.

A couple of weeks after that, one of several versions of Maynard & the Musties played Hank’s. Joe Maynard has played with a lot of people over the years, both here and elsewhere and consequently has a big address book. This particular version of the band, one part outlaw country and one part darkly twangy rock band, featured excellent lead guitarist Mac Randall and a new rhythm section. Much as Maynard’s most recent material can be very dark, he’s an awfully funny guy and this show featured more of that kind of material, including a song told from the point of view of a guy who’s psyched that his ladyfriend has hit menopause, since he no longer has to use protection. Maynard’s most recent album was recorded with the west coast version of the band; his next one will be with the New York crew, produced by Eric “Roscoe” Ambel.

A couple of weeks after that, the Howl Festival took over Tompkins Square Park for a couple of days. Day one featured a lot of solo sets at the bandshell. As usual, it was disorganized, with not much regard for holding to the schedule of which acts were supposed to perform when. Hoping to be able to catch a performance by Ward White turned out to be a debacle, but it was still good to see a solo set by Marni Rice. The accordionist/chanteuse did her usual mix of dark, original, punkish cabaret as well as a Piaf classic or two. Another even more punk cabaret personality, singer/bandleader Anna Copacabanna followed. Early on in her brief set, she did a snarling number about gentrifiers taking over her beloved adopted East Village turf, expected to hear roars of applause from the crowd and was nonplussed when she didn’t. How quickly times change. The rest of the set alternated between screaming punk rock and coy, innuendo-fueled, new wave-ish stuff, Copacabanna adding a nimble, tongue-in-cheek edge with her glockenspiel work.

The following week, Carolyn Mark played Rodeo Bar, vigorously strumming her acoustic guitar and backed by the Jack Grace Band, which was as fun and entertaining as you would expect. “Get it up, stick it in, pull it out,” went the chorus on the night’s big singalong number. A posse of Mark’s drunken fellow Canadians filled the floor in front by the tables as the band careened through a haphazard take of These Boots Are Made for Walking, Jack Grace quoting liberally from Led Zep. His wife and bass player Daria teamed up with the frontwoman for some soaring harmonies as the band made their way through Memphis soul and a couple of Texas shuffles. But the show wasn’t all oldschool party music. “Everybody’s so young,” Mark sang pensively on the night’s opening number. A little later, she led the band through a darkly skeletal number possibly called Scarecrows, then a soul-tinged kiss-off anthem. Mark plays the Rodeo every few months; let’s hope that Grace is in town next time around to back her.

Daria Grace at Rodeo Bar Last Night

For some crazy reason this past couple of weeks has been all about singers. Maybe there’s some mysterious force at work that science doesn’t understand yet. Or maybe it’s just that this is New York and even the far less mysterious forces of gentrification can’t banish all the great voices from this town.

In case you ever wondered, a lot of the vocal jazz groups you see playing restaurant gigs in New York actually serve a purpose. They give A-list players a chance to moonlight for a little extra cash – or maybe just dinner – and a chance to hang with their friends, and keep up their chops, even if nobody’s listening. What makes Daria Grace and the Pre-War Ponies any different from those other bands? She can’t resist a bargain at a junk shop – if that bargain is an old chart for some obscure song from the 20s or 30s. Last night at Rodeo Bar, they threw a few standards into the mix – Heart and Soul, and All I Do Is Dream of You, and a really thoughtful, low-key but vividly anxious version of It’s the Talk of the Town. But the real treats were the rarities that hardly anybody else plays: Jimmie Noone’s 1920s hit Ready for the River (“The happiest song ever written about suicide,” said trombonist J. Walter Hawkes); Hoagy Carmichael’s Two Sleepy People, about a “foggy little fella and drowsy little dame” who can’t drag themselves away from each other; and Belle Baker’s quietly brooding waltz Underneath the Russian Moon, from 1929.

Grace played baritone ukulele and sang with a cool, pure, mountain-spring clarity that went misty as she went up the scale, dipping down low and then stretching to the top of her register and making it look effortless. Hawkes varied his attack from droll to snarky to whispery to full-on crystalline intensity: when he wasn’t playing trombone, he was playing snaky, thoughtful leads on ukulele. The bass player dove into what was obviously a bunch of unfamiliar material, playing half his solos with a bow and coming up triumphantly while drummer Russ Meissner kept a wry shuffle groove going, often using just his hands on the snare and a cymbal. On the bouncy 1928 Helen Kane tune Get Out, Get Under the Moon, Grace finally cut loose at the end – the effect was intense.

Guy Lombardo’s Moon Over Brooklyn, a big favorite of this band, was as amusing as always. What makes it so funny is that it’s really not about Brooklyn at all. Somewhere in a junk shop in Illinois there may be a moth-eaten chart for the same song, except that the Chicago version switches out Flatbush Avenue for North Huron Street – and a line that rhymes with it. On Johnny Mercer’s Pardon My Southern Accent, was the band singing “Shut up!” on the chorus? No. The phrase was “Sho ’nuff!” Hawkes added his own version of a Southern accent on Atlanta Blues a.k.a. Pallet on Your Floor. They also did a balmy version of Paul Robeson’s Got the South in My Soul, a torchy Say It Isn’t So and flipped the script with a bracing bolero tune that gave Meissner a chance to really turn up the heat.

What are such a superb singer and her band doing singing over – or into – the Monday night football crowd at Rodeo Bar? This is a side project for her. Grace is also the bass player in her husband Jack’s group, one of the East Coast’s most popular country bands, so she’s busy with that. In the meantime, you can catch her with the Pre-War Ponies the last Monday of the month here playing two sets, starting a little after 9.