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Tag: jessi robertson review

Intense, Haunting Guitarist Rony Corcos Plays the Meatpacking District Tonight

Rony Corcos is the rare lead guitarist who makes every note count. She draws on classic Chicago and delta blues as much as darkly edgy songwriters like PJ Harvey. Corcos is leading her artsy, catchy power trio Rony’s Insomnia at the recently opened, sonically excellent Lively on 9th Ave. between 13th and 14th Streets tonight, May 20 at 8 PM.

Corcos’ most recent show found her doing double duty, first playing a rare solo electric set and then taking over lead duties with dark, powerful-voiced songstress Jessi Robertson at Hell Phone in Bushwick earlier this  month. After a brief set by a solid, purist acoustic delta blues guitarist, folk noir songsmith Lara Ewen channeled a simmering southern soul intensity, opening with the brooding, achingly angst-fueled soul tableau Breakdown Lane, the haunting centerpiece of her latest album The Wishing Stone Songs. The strings of her guitar rang out as she slapped them, instead of strumming, Ewen putting some grit in her typically crystalline, reflecting-pool vocals as she brought to life a Waits-ish procession of flophouse characters on their way down.

She kept the smoldering ambience going through the pensive number after that, then hit a hypnotic art-folk groove with Untethered, akin to what Aussie art-rockers the Church might have done with an acoustic number around 1985. From there she hit an uneasy trip-hop groove with Restless, an explosive kiss-off anthem that gave her a platform for some chilling flights to the upper registers. Then she took a detour toward disconsolate oldschool C&W with 20 Years, and its vivid portrait of a middleaged woman looking back in regret, telling the guy who’s hanging around her that he wouldn’t have stood a chance when she “had ‘em hanging from the chandeliers and put on quite a show.” Ewen’s funniest song of the night drew on her experiences visiting her cashier pal at an all-night supermarket in her native Queens and being regaled with stories about the ridiculous antics of the loser the poor girl was dating. Ewen closed with her big audience hit, the morbidly catchy Death Better Take Me Dancing, a good setup for the rest of an intensely excellent bill.

Corcos opened her set with an opaquely lingering, psychedelically-tinged anthem: “Are we still in control? Is there anybody in there?” she pondered, low and brooding. Playing solo on her Gibson, she did the artsy, psychdelic anthem Emerald City as a spare, hypnotic mood piece: “Cover up your scars, pretty one, I’ll give you new ones,” she murmured. She aired out a lot of new material: a ripe, bruised post-breakup ballad, an atmospheric art-rock tableau spiced with the occasional ominous chromatic, and a couple of catchy, slow-to-midtempo numbers that brought to mind PJ Harvey’s recent work. Corcos’ carefully modulated voice rose and fell amidst spiky chordlets, oldschool blues licks and rainswept, trippy washes of sound.

Robertson and Corcos’ headline set reached a white-knuckle intensity. The two opened with an insistently anthemic, hypnotic number: ?Challenge me, don’t give in easy,” Robertson intoned enigmatically. Corcos’ spare, sparkling blues lines lit up the stately, moody waltz after that, up to an angst-drenched vamp, Robertson insistig, “Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing” over and over again. Then the two went deep into the blues for an explosively fun singalong take of Lipstick, a sardonic barroom pickup scenario. Strangely enough, Robertson, with her harrowing, otherworldly, soaring voice, delivered the night’s funniest number, a wryly countyr-flavored tune with a chorus of “I hope I hurt you more than you hurt me.” Robertson is at Bowery Electric on June 9 at 8 PM for a rare free show there.

Jessi Robertson Brings Her Otherworldly Intensity to the American Folk Art Museum

Jessi Robertson‘s voice looms out from a deep, otherworldly, often tortured place. Her singing has little in common with Nina Simone and even less with Little Jimmy Scott, but she channels the same kind of deeply personal yet unselfconscious torment and emotional destitution as both of those artists. That’s not to say that all of Robertson’s songs are sad – a handful are actually pretty funny – but that her slowly rising melismas and full-throated wail come from the same place: the blues. While Robertson isn’t a blues singer per sen, she uses blues phrasing with the same emotional wallop as any artist who grew up in that idiom. In a very auspicious move, Robertson has teamed up with fellow guitarist Rony Corcos, who has a similarly intense command of the blues, even though she ‘s also not a blues artist in the purest sense of the word. The two played their debut show together last month at Pine Box Rock Shop in Bushwick, and it was scary. They’re bringing that same intensity to the American Folk Art Museum for a show as part of Lara Ewen‘s fantasttic series of free afterwork concerts on February 19 starting at around 5:30 PM.

The tantalizingly brief Bushwick set featured mostly songs from Robertson’s latest album I Came from the War. They opened with a real showstopper, You’re Gonna Burn, Corcos’ lingering phrases underscoring Robertson’s ominous and eventually venomous insistence, finally rising to the top of her range for a long single note that seemed it would never stop. After that, they made Trouble a study in contrasts, enigmatically resonant verse against an anthemic chorus, Corcos’ spare, rainy-day phrases mingling with Robertson’s open chords, bringing to mind the Throwing Muses at their 80s peak.

They swung their way into a Breathe, another study in parallels: hypnotic verse, wickedly catchy, soaring chorus, contemplating “an instrument of beauty and sorrow”-  the same could have been said what both these musicians were channeling. Corcos shifted from shimmery raindroplets on that one to a wounded, deep delta blues hooks on the next: “How can I get high when you always bring me down?” Robertson intoned. Corcos went back to pointilllistic drizzle mode for the next number, a gorgeously crescendoing, bittersweet waltz, then delivered deep-space echo onYou Don’t Wany to Taste My Heart, told from the doomed viewpoint of a girl who sheds “her winter coat” at night and cuts herself. The two closed with a bitingly vamping minor-key breakup anthem. When Robertson wailed, “This is crazy, this is crazy,” the impact was visceral. It would have been interesting to see how many more people would have enjoyed it if the bar’s back room was more visible. If you think the back room at Otto’s seems forbiddingly off-limits to bar customers, you’ve never been to Pine Box Rock Shop.

Revisiting and Looking Ahead to a Bunch of Great Acoustic Shows

Karen Dalhstrom is one of the four first-rate songwriters in Bobtown, who with their unearthly four-part harmonies and creepy tunesmithing are arguably the most distinctive noir Americana band on the planet. They’re playing the album release show for their long-awaited new album, A History of Ghosts on the big stage downstairs at Hill Country at 9:30 PM on Jan 14. Not to take anything away from her work with that band, but Dahlstrom is also a solo artist, with a killer album of her own, Gem State, a collection of songs set in frontier-era Idaho and written in a period-perfect oldtime vernacular. It was good to be able to catch one of her infrequent solo shows awhile back at the American Folk Art Museum across the Broadway/Columbus triangle up by Lincoln Center.

Taking advantage of the space’s natural reverb, Dahlstrom aired out several of the songs from that album, including a goosebump-inducing a-cappella version of Streets of Pocatello, a menacing, hardscrabble hobo’s tale. Miner’s Bride, an even more doomed narrative told by a mail-order bride sent off to an uncertain fate on the high plains, was every bit as haunting. But the high point of the show – and one most spine-tingling moments at any concert in town last year – was her version of Galena. The Idaho city takes its name from a woman, maybe a Russian or Polish immigrant, mother or wife to one of the men who flocked there during the Gold Rush. Over a sad, elegantly waltzing tune, Dahlstrom brought the sudden rise and equally sudden decline of this boomtown to life, aptly personifed as a woman, who ends up “A penny curiosity, old bones in a pinewood vale,” Dahlstrom’s elegaic alto rising just a little from almost a whisper, to low and mournful.

Lara Ewen, the crystalline-voiced Americana songstress who hosts the pretty-much-weekly free Friday evening afterwork acoustic shows at the Folk Art Museum, told the crowd that this show was roughly the fourth time she’d booked Dahlstrom for a gig there: if that’s not instant cred, nothing is. As you would expect, there have been plenty of other excellent shows there in recent months. Sweet Soubrette, the more pop-oriented project of singer/ukulele player Ellia Bisker (who has a murderously good new album with the creepy Charming Disaster, her duo with Kotorino‘s Jeff Morris, due out shortly) swung through to play a stripped-down trio set. The highlight of that one was the eerily glimmering Burning City, an evocation of the bombing and subsequent firestorms in WWII Berlin.

Greg Cornell of the Cornell Brothers played a fascinating duo set there. What an interesting, and original, and excellent guitarist this guy is. Few other players rely on the low strings as much, and as imaginatively, and tunefully, as this guy does. His style is somewhere between bluegrass flatpicking and janglerock, and it’s completely his own. It helps that his songs are as anthemic and catchy as they are.

Another individualistic act, folk noir duo Mark Rogers and Mary Byrne – whose debut album I Line My Days Along Your Weight has been burning up the internet lately – got the call to pinch-hit for an act who’d cancelled, and hit one out of the park with their hypnotically moody, allusively lyrical songs. Byrne switched between guitar and a vintage mandolin, singing with a wary, carefully modulated, wounded delivery as Rogers nonchalantly aired out a deep and equally considered mix of classic blues, folk and bluegrass licks that merged seamlessly into Byrne’s somber, crepuscular narratives.

There seem to be two Caitlin Bells playing music in New York these days; purist oldtime Americana singer Caitlin Marie Bell is the talented one. She shares a pensive, rustic quality with Rogers and Byrne, mining the classic folk repertoire from the 1800s for her all-too-brief solo acoustic set there. Her high, resonant vocals soared over her nimble guitar fingerpicking as she made her way through warmly bucolic, Appalachian flavored front porch material along with a couple of darker, more incisive, blues-infused numbers.

Another purist folk musician from a completely different idiom, Pete Rushefsky played a rapturous, often exhilarating, glistening set there a few weeks later. His axe is the tsimbl, the pointillistically rippling, otherworldly Ukraininan Jewish hammered dulcimer that’s the forerunner of the Hungarian cimbalom and the western European zither. The first part of his set featured him leading a trio with two violins leaping and dancing against the tsimbl’s lush undercurrent; the second featured his wife doubling on flute and vocals, delivering several obscure treats from the Ukraininan folk tradition. What’s especially interesting about Rushefsky’s songbook is that much of it sounds completely different fom the boisterous, carnivalesque Romany-flavored klezmer music from points further west: this was both more somber and lustrous.

Where Rushefsky worked a pensive, hypnotic ambience, Sharon Goldman was her usual direct self: the acoustic rock tunesmith can say more in a few words than most people can in a whole album. She can also be drop-dead funny, although this time out her set was more about painting pictures, whether an unexpectedly triumphant late summer Park Slope scenario, or the ominous foreshadowing of the morning of 9/11…or a coy couple competing over a pint of ice cream. Goldman bought them to life with catchy chord changes on the guitar and her richly modulated, subtly nuanced vocals.

And Ewen booked a pretty perfect choice for Halloween: Jessi Robertson. She’s got an unearthly wail to rival anyone, and this time out had made herself up as a bloody corpse or accident victim or something similarly gruesome. So when she cut loose with “You’re gonna burn, my love,” on the chorus of the first song on her excellent new album, it worked on every conceivable level. And after she’d done a few similarly harrowing numbers, going off-mic and singing without any amplification, she did a cruelly funny country song with a title something along the lines of I Hope I Hurt You As Much As You Hurt Me.

Goldman, like so many others in the vanguard of acoustic music, likes house concerts: her next one is in Jersey City on Jan 25 at 8 PM, email for info. Sweet Soubrette are at Freddy’s on Jan 22. And the American Folk Art Museum’s free, 5:30 PM Friday concert series resumes on Jan 9 with first-class, politically-fueled lyricist and anthemic folk-rock songwriter Niall Connolly headlining at around half past six.

A Volcanic, Intense New Album and a Union Hall Show from Jessi Robertson

Jessi Robertson has one of the most harrowing voices around. It’s one powerful instrument, which is why sometimes when she’s onstage – especially when she’s playing solo – she doesn’t bother to use a mic since she basically doesn’t need one. Yet she’s also one of the most captivatingly nuanced singers around, which is unusual for someone with such an unearthly, impassioned wail. Her new album, I Came From the War blends her signature folk noir with artfully sculpted, lingering, sometimes majestic art-rock over tempos which tend to be on the slow side. She’s playing the release show on Dec 5 at 9 PM at Union Hall in Park Slope on a killer doublebill with the similarly brooding, intense, enigmatic Richard Buckner. Cover is $15 and it’s a good bet this show will sell out, so get there early. The album’s not out yet but there are a couple of tracks up at Robertson’s webpage and also her Bandcamp page – and what’s best is that it will be available on vinyl in addition to the usual digital formats.

Robertson varies her delivery from song to song, often from one verse to another: a soaring, achingly wounded soul-inspired delivery, then raw gritty rock, or smoldering, torchy jazz phrasing. The subtext screams throughout these songs, sometimes literally: war and its aftermath as metaphor for the perils of romance. The opening track, You’re Gonna Burn sets the stage: deep inside, it’s a bitter, menacing blues, Omer Leibovitz’s resonant, sustained lead guitar lines fueling its big upward trajectory.

Paper Crowns follows the same kind of upward drive out of a minimalist intro, a hunter-captured-by-the-prey scenario with an absolutely spine-tingling, lurid crescendo from Robertson. Trouble, a hypnotic anthem and a big audience hit, is a particularly anguished take on the old dilemma of whether or not to give in to temptation: Robertson caps it off with a particularly messy image of of losing one’s virginity. Tin Man kicks off with a stately 6/8 sway, watery guitars contrasting with Alex Picca’s fuzzy bass, building an orate, goth-tinged 80s atmosphere: it’s a portrait of denial told from the point of view of the bad guy in a relationship.

Immolate revisits the fire metaphor, but in the voice of a combat survivor, gospel-fueled angst over 4AD atmospherics – the way Robertson lets a crack or two into her voice is viscerally intense. Picca’s catchy bassline and Layton Weedeman’s drums build a pounding, red-neon arena-rock ambience on Lipstick: “How can I get high when you always bring me down,” Robertson’s protagonist complains, hell-bent on another conquest of one kind or another.

The album really picks up toward the end, first with Microtone Tone, the most noir song here, a kiss-off anthem with hilariously mean lyrics. Likewise, Silly Old Thing is a more amped-up take on the kind of brooding Americana that Robertson first made a name for herself with in the past decade. The most haunting and intense song of all is Winter Coat, just Robertson’s low, anguished vocals and acoustic guitar, a chilling portrait of battles with inner demons – Lucinda Williams would be proud to have written something this vivid.  The final cut, Cipher, is much the same, Robertson on piano this time, a chillingly apocalyptic digital-age parable. Like all the best art, this album gives you pause and makes you question where you are, whether in your own life or in what’s around you: the most intimately personal as political.

Two First-Rate, Contrasting Tunesmiths

It’s hard to imagine two tunesmiths or performers with less in common than Shannon Pelcher and Jessi Robertson. Each played a tantalizingly short acoustic set Friday night at the American Folk Art Museum and held the crowd rapt for very different reasons, other than that both artists’ songs are purposeful and interesting, and that neither player wastes notes, vocally or guitarwise.

Pelcher went on first. She’s very eclectic, has a great sense of melody and sings in an unaffectedly clear, nuanced soprano. She’s also a strong guitarist and uses a lot of jazz chords, but spaciously: they don’t clutter her songs. And she switches up genres: a warmly swaying waltz, a straight-up oldschool country tune, a jaunty oldtimey swing number, bucolic Americana and sophisticated jazz (which may be her ultimate destination). So choosing to do the show as a duo with a jazz bassist who added a handful of tuneful, serpentine solos made perfect sense. One of the strongest tunes in Pelcher’s set, a terse, syncopated number with a wickedly catchy chorus, is on the compilation album that the museum is selling at their gift shop for a ridiculously cheap five bucks. Pelcher is playing Barbes tomorrow night, June 25 at 7 with the droll, literarily-inspired Bushwick Book Club.

Where Pelcher did a lot of things, Robertson did one thing, delivering a wallop with her full-throated, angst-ridden, soul-inspired alto wail and her harrowing songs. She’ll probably be the first to admit that she’s a band person rather than a solo performer, but she reaffirmed the old aphorism that if a song sounds good solo acoustic, it’ll sound even better with a full band behind it. She opened in a nebulously early 70s Pink Floyd/Britfolk vein with a vamping lament, following with a moody reflection on aging that reminded of Kelli Rae Powell. The longing and ache in Robertson’s voice was relentless; as powerful an instrument as it is, she proved just as subtle and dynamic a singer as Pelcher, at one point disdainfully pushing the mic down and singing the rest of her set without any amplification. Not that she needed it, especially with the museum atrium’s natural reverb.

Explaining that she had a new album in the can, she told the crowd that her producer had heard her playing a brand-new song and insisted that she go back in the studio, a smart move: with its dark blues and gospel echoes, it turned out to be a characteristicaly potent portrait of pain and alienation. The characters in Robertson’s narratives deal with a lot of that, especially the girl who cuts herself in You Don’t Want to Taste My Heart, from her 2011 album Small Town Girls, arguably the high point of the show. And when she sang “You’re gonna burn, my love, ” over and over again over a haunting minor-key vamp as the last song wound out, there was no doubt she meant it. Robertson is playing LIC Bar in Long Island City at 1:30 on June 28 on an excellent multi-songwriter bill that also features Lara Ewen, the irrepressible impresario and soaring Americana singer who runs the museum’s consistently good Friday night concert series.