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Tag: karen dahlstrom

Is It Safe to Say That Murder Ballad Mondays Are Killer?

It took four months worth of Murder Ballad Mondays before somebody played Rock Salt and Nails. It’s one of the real classics of folk noir. And it’s well known. Populist folksinger Nevada Smith gets credited for it, but it’s unlike anything else in his catalog and has a vernacular that looks back as far as the 1850s. And it’s as disconsolate as it is vengeful: the violence is implied, and even then, not til the last verse. Bobtown guitarist and songwriter Karen Dahlstrom channeled that sadness with distance and understatement, saving her powerful wail for a creepy a-cappella performance of her own grim Old West outlaw ballad Streets of Pocatello , from her brilliant Idaho-themed album Gem State. Then she picked up her guitar and did a new one that was a lot quieter but just as eerie.

That’s Murder Ballad Mondays in a nutshell: elite performers having fun with deadly tales from across the centuries and from their own repertoire as well. So far, the two most popular covers at this well-attended monthly extravaganza seem to be Delia’s Gone and Henry Lee, referencing both Johnny Cash and Gillian Welch. But the originals are what people come for: organizers Jeff Morris and Ellia Bisker, better known as torchily menacing parlor pop duo Charming Disaster, pack a lot into two hours. The next one is Monday, January 18 at 8 PM at Branded Saloon in Ft. Greene (closest stop is Bergen St. on the 2/3) featuring ominous baritone crooner Sean Kershaw and other similarly minded acts.

Charming Disaster have treated crowds here to short sets at previous Murder Ballad Mondays installments; last time around, they did just a single number, the allusively torchy Ghost Story (although they played a full set at Pete’s Candy Store this past Saturday night, packed the place and delivered an actually very funny show that included both a devastatingly tongue-in-cheek Led Zep cover and a new one about breaking strings onstage).

A duo version of phantasmagorical circus rock/noir cabaret band Orphan Jane – accordionist Tim Cluff and his trumpeter – also joined the festivities last time out, firing off a furtive number simply titled Murder as well as The Mansion Song, a menacingly vaudevillian narrative whose message seems to be that it pays to be cautious when seeking revenge against the one-tenth-of-one-percent: they can afford a bigger army than you.

Other artists included art-rock luminary and multi-instrumentalist Serena Jost, who held the crowd rapt with a typically allusive new tale about murder on the gallery floor, and an icily doomed cover from the current Nordic art-pop catalog. And singer Karen Poliski worked a similar intensity as she went to the well for a chilling Handsome Family cover.

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Murder and Mayhem in Brooklyn, Again

One of Brooklyn’s most unique music scenes is growing in the wilds of Fort Greene, where noir chamber pop connoisseurs Charming Disaster – Ellia Bisker of the darkly catchy Sweet Soubrette and Jeff Morris of the lushly orchestrated, latin-tinged, phantasmagorical Kotorino – host a monthly salon where artists from many different genres get together to explore the darkest side of songwriting. It’s only fitting that the latest installment of Murder Ballad Mondays would take place on the darkest day of the year, this December 21 at 8 PM at Branded Saloon. Featured artists include enigmatic art-rock cellist/chanteuse Serena Jost, haunting High Plains gothic songstress Karen Dahlstrom (of folk noir stars Bobtown), the luridly theatrical, Brechtian Orphan Jane, Americana singer-songwriters Karen Poliski and Terry Radigan and others.

One explanation for the monthly extravaganza’s popularity could be that the artists here don’t limit themselves to old Appalachian folk songs or Child ballads. They’re pushing the limits of how far murder ballads can go: who knows, maybe this could become more than a demimonde. As the turnout here proves, there’s no shortage of material, not to mention people who like creepy music. This past month’s lineup, in particular, featured some of New York’s elite songsmiths, who turned in some pretty amazing performances.

Jessi Robertson, with her impassioned, otherworldly, rustic blues voice, got the night started on a strong note with a morosely stately waltz. “Should have burned it to the ground, dance in the dark…it’s a sad old story,” she intoned, low and gloomy. Then she referenced Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles over a mesh of watery, open guitar chords.

Sharply literate Americana parlor pop chanteuse Robin Aigner followed with an almost gleeful take of Delia’s Gone – springboarding off the Johnny Cash version – and then reinvented Neil Young’s Down By the River as a brooding minor-key waltz. In between, she sang a brand-new song, a swinging, catchy oldtimey strut: “I can’t shut you up, I can’t shut you out but I can shoot you and put you in the ground,” she grinned, explaining that the victim was a composite of ex-boyfriends rather than a specific individual. Yikes!

Jessie Kilguss made her US debut on harmonium (she played it on her most recent European tour) on a riveting, soaringly enveloping take of the Nick Cave version of the old standard Henry Lee. as well as making her way through a rapt, stark take of an original, Hell Creek, backed by guitarist John Kengla’s icy, late Beatlesque chorus-pedal guitar. Guitarist Arthur Schupach led his Donald & Lydia duo project through another take of Henry Lee, this one based on the Jolie Holland version. Speaking of which, that’s who Ellis Dodi frontwoman Erica Diloreto brought to mind, throughout a mix of material including a hilarious acoustic punk tune where she dropped a whole slew of f-bombs on a clueless ex.

Juliet Strong played kinetic, rippling gospel and ragtime-fueled piano on a couple of originals, while Charming Disaster tantalized the crowd with a single tongue-in-cheek number about a couple of ghosts in love, pulsing with intricate, sophisticated vocal call-and-response between Bisker and Morris. And a familiar bass face from the Lower East Side scene took a haphazard turn on piano, drawing some chuckles with a bitter 6/8 ballad about killing the tech-obsessed, micromanaging boss from hell. A ghoulabilly number about doing in the sleazy front guy from a hydrofracking operation didn’t go over as well. And a cover of a brand-new, as-yet-untitled Karla Rose & the Thorns serial killer narrative – done as a dirgey bolero with horror-film chromatics – capsulized the danger of a guy with Lou Reed vocal range plundering the repertoire of an immensely more powerful singer. Which speaks to Murder Ballad Mondays’ value as lab for experimentation as much as entertainment.

A Killer Murder Ballad Monday Coming Up in Brooklyn

What’s the likelihood of seeing two bands as brilliantly creepy as Bobtown and Charming Disaster on the same bill? And one of New York’s great lead guitarists, and one of the most distinctive banjo players on the planet, and a rising star in the cello-rock demimonde? It happened at the second installment of the new, monthly Murder Ballad Mondays series at Branded Saloon. It’s a salon held in a saloon – rather than an open mic, it’s a place for eclectic artists to prowl around in the darkest corners of the human psyche, pay homage to psychopathic urges in song from across the centuries, and work up new material in that hallowed tradition.

Charming Disaster – guitarist Jeff Morris from the estimable, phantasmagorical  latin noir/art-rock band Kotorino and Ellia Bisker from the similarly-inclined Sweet Soubrette and Funkrust Brass Band – run the show here, and treated the crowd to an all-too-brief, barely half-hour set of menacingly harmony-driven songs that veered from chamber pop to noir cabaret to circus rock. It was the one point in a deviously fun night of music where the songs deviated from the topic of killing to simply chronicling the intricacies of all sorts of troubled relationships, some mythical, some set in the here and now. Morris played with just a touch of distortion on his old hollowbody Gibson as Bisker wound through graceful lead lines on her electric ukulele.

Bobtown – one of the best loved and most menacing bands in folk noir – opened the show, percussionist/keyboardist Katherine Etzel, singer Jen McDearman, guitarist Karen Dahlstrom, bassist Fred Stesney and lead guitarist/banjo player Alan Lee Backer treating the crowd to some unexpected but typically ominous new material, the sparkling harmonies of the women in the band flying overhead. Backer then took a detour into his own vintage-style Americana and C&W, followed by folk singers Sarah Durning and then Karen Poliski parsing the classics with some murderous numbers from the repertoire of Gillian Welch and others.

The  most original of all the covers was a mind-warping take of Helter Skelter, played solo on banjo by Andrew Vladeck of jangly, Americana-inflected anthem band Fireships. Badass, eclectic cello-rock firestarter Patricia Santos (also of Kotorino) went deep into rustic blues/gospel mode with a new one of her own as well as another Gillian Welch tune. Comic relief was provided by Erica Smith‘s bass player taking a rare turn on piano. He’d written a song on the way to the show – a politically-inspired ghoulabilly tune – but couldn’t read the lyrics he’d scribbled moments before on the D train. Backer’s penlight came to the rescue.

This coming Monday’s installment, starting at 8 PM, features an even more auspicious lineup: powerful, soul-infused dark acoustic songwriter Jessi Robertson; brilliant Americana/janglerock tunesmith and harmonium player Jessie Kilguss; the similarly intense, historically-fixated Robin Aigner; songwriter Arthur Schupbach’s John Prine-inspired Donald & Lydia duo project; parlor pop songwriter Juliet Strong and more.

And Charming Disaster have a gig on Saturday night, November 14 at 8 at the Slipper Room; cover is $15.

 

Bobtown Bring Their Gorgeous Gothic Americana to Hill Country

Harmony-driven gothic Americana band Bobtown‘s new album, A History of Ghosts, recently reached #1 at the Roots Music Report. They’re playing the album release show on the big stage downstairs at Hill Country on 26th St. just off 6th Ave. at 9:30 PM on Jan 14. A lot of things distinguish this band from the others in their field: their otherworldly, gorgeous four-part vocal harmonies, for one. The fact that the band has not one but four first-rate songwriters, who all seem to save their best material for the group, doesn’t hurt. And while there’s a whole demimonde of carnivalesque Americana bands who write gloomy minor-key songs about backstreet murders and drunken depravity, Bobtown’s songs are all the more creepy for how lighthearted they can be – on the surface, anyway.

How about a slow, summery pastoral reminiscence – about a public execution? A blithe, bouncy waltz with chipper, round-the-horn vocals, about drinking yourself to death in a dead-end town? Those are just two examples of what percussionist/keyboardist Katherine Etzel, singer Jen McDearman, guitarist Karen Dahlstrom and bassist Fred Stesney come up with on the album, streaming at their site. The womens’ crystalline vocals blend with the fretwork of lead guitarist/banjoist Alan Lee Backer, who long ago established himself as one of the most diverse and incisive players in the New York Americana scene, a guy who’s just as fluent with electric honkytonk as he is bluegrass.

The song about the execution is Morning Sun, written and sung by Stesney, the women’s vocals adding an eerie shimmer behind the tale of the guy on the gallows who’s finally run out of time. The grimly funny dead-end town waltz is Rumble Seat, by Etzel, a good way to get acquainted with the singers’ individual voices. That’s Dahlstrom, McDearman and then Etzel as they make their way through the first verse.

Dahlstrom’s Across the River opens the album on a delicate, purist country gospel note: if the Dixie Chicks’ record label’s marketing department had left them alone, they might have sounded something like this. She also contributes the cynically brooding, bolero-tinged Our Lady of Guadalupe Street.

McDearman takes over lead vocals on her trio of songs here (co-written with producer Joe Ongie): the subtly enigmatic, banjo-fueled bluegrass tune Girl in Blue, Darlin’, a plaintive, wistful waltz, and Oh, Undertaker, which sets a ghoulishly amusing lyric to a morose tune fueled by Etzel’s accordion. Etzel’s two other songs here are the elegantly orchestrated, ethereally intriguing Fosse Grim, and the rousingly gospel-flavored Stitch in Time.

Stesney also contributes the phantasmagorically shuffling circus rock anthem Kentucky Graveyard – which ends with a hilarious surf music quote – as well as the title track, a grimly catchy litany of ways to reach your final resting place. It’s may be early, but this is a strong contender for best album of the year.

If you’re wondering where the band got their name, it’s a neighborhood near Etzel’s old Iowa hometown.

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.

The Best New York Concerts of 2014

Of all the year-end lists here, including the best albums and best songs of 2014 lists, this one is the most individual, and the most fun to put together. But as amazing a year for live music as it was, there were twice as many enticing shows that this blog never had the chance to cover as there are on this list. It’s called having a life – or trying to, in between concerts, anyway.

So consider this an informed survey rather than anything definitive, and ultimately, a reason for guarded optimism. Much as gentrification destroys the arts like Walmart destroys local economies, neither one has killed us. Yet.

What was the single best show of the year? Four multi-band bills stand out from the rest. Back in October at Trans-Pecos, charismatic Great Plains gothic bandleader Ember Schrag played a wickedly lyrical mix of mostly new material, some of it with a string section, the rest fueled by the snarling, spectacular lead guitar of Bob Bannister. Also playing that night: rapturously hypnotic, melancholic cellist/songwriter Meaner Pencil, dark art-rock duo Christy & Emily, plus a starkly entrancing set by two jazz icons, guitarist Mary Halvorson and violist Jessica Pavone.

A month earlier, renaissance woman Sarah Small put together a similarly magical night at Joe’s Pub featuring her Middle Eastern-inspired trio Hydra with Rima Fand and Yula Beeri as well as her otherworldly Balkan choral trio Black Sea Hotel with Willa Roberts and Shelley Thomas. There were also brief sets from the reliably entertaining all-female accordion group the Main Squeeze Orchestra and a trio version of one of NYC’s original Romany bands, Luminescent Orchestrii.

In mid-November, the Bowery Electric triplebill of hauntingly catchy Nashville gothic tunesmith/singer Jessie Kilguss, similarly lyrical and vocally gifted art-rock songwriter Ward White – both playing an album release show – and well-loved literate Americana rocker Matt Keating was pretty transcendent. And let’s not forget the Alwan-a-Thon back in January, the annual celebration of cutting-edge sounds from across the Arabic-speaking world held at financial district music mecca Alwan for the Arts. This one featured two floors of amazing acts including intense Lebanese-born pianist Tarek Yamani and his trio, luminous Balkan chanteuse Eva Salina, amazingly psychedelic 1960s Iranian art-dance-rock revivalists Mitra Sumara, sizzling Romany party monsters Sazet Band, and the all-star Alwan Ensemble, who played bristling jams on classic themes from Egypt, Syria and Iraq.

Rather than trying to rank the rest of these shows, they’re listed in chronological order:

Avi Fox-Rosen and Raya Brass Band at Rock Shop, 1/9/14 – Fox-Rosen had just released an album every single month in 2013, so this was a triumphant sort of greatest hits live gig for the sharply lyrical, catchy art-rock tunesmith followed by a wild vortex of Balkan jamming, the group down on the floor in front of the stage surrounded by dancers.

LJ Murphy & the Accomplices at Parkside Lounge, 2/1/14 – the charismatic, nattily dressed noir rocker led his explosive, blues-fueled band through a careening set of intensely lyrical, distinctively New York narratives.

Siach Hasadeh and Ichka in the basement at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue on the Upper West Side, 3/4/14 – every Tuesday, more or less, drummer Aaron Alexander – a prime mover in Jewish jazz circles – books a series of reliably excellent bands here. This twinbill kicked off with a rapturously haunting set by Montreal’s Siach Hasadeh followed by another Montreal outfit, the high-energy Ichka and then a jam with members of both bands joined by audience members.

Tammy Faye Starlite singing Marianne Faithfull’s Broken English at the Lincoln Center Atrium, 3/13/14 – a counterintuitive, sardonically hilarious reinterpretation of a haphazardly iconic new wave era album.

Jenifer Jackson at the Rockwood, 3/26/14 – the eclectic Austin songwriter brought her new band from her adopted hometown, reinventing older material and newer stuff as well with Kullen Fuchs’ rippling vibraphone as the lead instrument.

Gord Downie & the Sadies at Bowery Ballroom, 5/2/14 – a furious, often haunting sprint through the Canadian gothic Americana band’s most recent collaboration with the Tragically Hip frontman, ending with an explosively psychedelic Iggy Pop cover.

Hannah Thiem at Mercury Lounge, 5/29/14 – the haunting violinist/composer teamed up with an A-list string section to air out soaringly ethereal, cinematic new Nordic and Middle Eastern-tinged electroacoustic material from her latest album.

Nick Waterhouse at the Brooklyn Night Bazaar in Greenpoint, 6/13/14 – the LA noir soul bandleader and a killer pickup band featuring Burnt Sugar’s Paula Henderson on baritone sax brought moody Lynchian sounds to this grotesquely trendoid-infested space.

Kayhan Kalhor and Jivan Gasparyan at the World Financial Center, 6/14/14 – the legendary Iranian-Kurdish spike fiddle virtuoso and composer joined the similarly legendary Armenian duduk reedman for a rapturous, otherworldly duo set of improvisations on classic themes from each others’ traditions.

No Grave Like the Sea at Ramirez Park in Bushwick, 6/21/14 – after a day running around aimlessly trying to find bands playing daytime shows during the annual Make Music NY buskerfest, the volcanically sweeping, epic set by bassist Tony Maimone’s cinematic postrock band made it all worthwhile.

Karen Dahlstrom at the American Folk Art Museum, 6/27/14 – while she may be best known as one of the four first-rate songwriters in Bobtown, arguably the best gothic Americana harmony band around, Dahlstrom is also just as captivating as a solo performer. She took advantage of the museum’s sonics and sang a-cappella and ran through a tantalizingly brief set of haunting, historically rich original songs from her Idaho-themed album Gem State.

Serena Jost at the Rockwood, 6/29/14 – a lush, sweeping, richly enveloping, tuneful show by the art-rock cellist/multi-instrumentalist singer and her band. The all-too-brief, eclectic set by southwestern gothic bandleader Sergio Mendoza y la Orkesta about an hour beforehand at South Street Seaport – with psychedelic cumbias, rumba rock and the most twisted Fleetwood Mac cover ever – got the evening off to a great start.

Changing Modes at Bowery Electric, 7/19/14 – keyboardist/bassist Wendy Griffiths’ slinky, shapeshifting art-rock band has never sounded more anthemic or intense. And earlier that afternoon, scorching sets by the noisily atmospheric VBA, pummeling postrock/metal band Biblical and dark garage punks Obits at Union Pool kicked off what might have been the year’s single best day of music.

Jacco Gardner at South Street Seaport, 8/15/14 – he sort of plays the same song over and over, a dreamy, gorgeously chiming, psychedelic sunshine pop number straight out of London, 1967. But it’s a great song, and it was worth sticking around for what were essentially variations on a theme.

Bliss Blood & Al Street at Brooklyn Rod & Gun Club, 8/27/14 – the lurid but plaintive and haunting torch song icon teamed up with the brilliant, flamenco-inspired guitarist for a riveting, Lynchian set of mostly new material from their phenomenally good forthcoming album.

Gemma Ray at Rough Trade, 9/13/14 – the British noir songwriter played a similarly Lynchian set in a stark duo show, just guitar and drums, a showcase for her smart, individualistic, creepy playing and macabre songwriting.

The Dances of the World Chamber Ensemble at St. Marks Church, 9/14/14 – the improvisationally-inclined, cinematic instrumentalists ran through a magical blend of African, Middle Eastern, tango and jazz pieces by frontwoman/pianist/flutist Diana Wayburn.

Chicha Libre at Barbes, 9/15/14 – sadly, NYC’s funnest band have since gone on “indefinite hiatus,” whatever that means. At least they were on the top of their game when they played a wild, darkly psychedelic mix of trippy, surfy Peruvian psychedelic cumbia sounds in one of their last shows of the year.

Wounded Buffalo Theory playing Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway at Rock Shop, 9/19/14 – the art-rockers joined with a revolving cast including members of the Sometime Boys, Afroskull, 29 Hour Music People, and the Trouble Dolls for an impressively spot-on, epic recreation of the cult favorite 1974 art-rock album, WNYC’s John Hockenberry reading Peter Gabriel’s drolly surreal album liner notes in between songs.

Souren Baronian’s Taksim at Barbes, 9/23/14 – this isn’t the show reviewed at this blog back in June. That show featured the octogenarian multi-reedman and his hypnotic but kinetic band playing an unselfconsciously deep, soulful blend of Armenian music and incisive American jazz. His next gig there was even better!

Sherita at Barbes, 9/30/14 – the Brooklyn Balkan supergroup of sorts – reedman Greg Squared of Raya Brass Band, violinist Rima Fand of Luminescent Orchestrii, percussionis/singer Renée Renata Bergan and oudist Adam Good – played an alternately sizzling and sepulchral mix of originals and classic themes from Turkey, Greece and here as well.

Mary Lee Kortes at the Rockwood, 10/7/14 – the brilliant Americana songwriter and chanteuse and her band, feauturing John Mellencamp guitarist Andy York, aired out dazzlingly eclectic, intensely lyrical songs from her forthcoming album, The Songs of Beulah Rowley, a mix of saloon jazz, torch song and plaintive Americana.

The Skull Practitioners at Pine Box Rock Shop in Bushwick, 10/31/14 – it was the ultimate Halloween show, Steve Wynn lead guitar monster Jason Victor’s otherworldly, pummeling noiserock trio building a menacing but wickedly catchy vortex. That their half-hour set was as good as some of the four-hour bills on this list testifies to how volcanically good it was.

Karla Moheno at the Rockwood, 11/18/14 – the inscrutable noir songwriter and guitarist led a killer, Lynchian band through a mix of low-key, murderous, mysteriously lyrical narratives and more upbeat but no less shadowy material.

Mamie Minch at Barbes, 12/20/14 – this is why it always pays to wait til the very end of the year to finish this list. The charismatic resonator guitarist/singer and oldtime blues maven teamed up with Kill Henry Suger drummer Dean Sharenow for a killer set of blues from over the decades along with similarly edgy, sardonically aphoristic original material

If you’re wondering why there isn’t any jazz or classical music to speak of on this list, that’s because this blog has an older sister blog, Lucid Culture, which covers that kind of stuff in more detail.

A couple of things may jump out at you here. Nineteen of these shows were in Manhattan, eleven were in Brooklyn and one in Queens, which is open to multiple interpretations. More instructive is the fact that nineteen of the thirty-one 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. 26 out of of the 42 acts here were either women playing solo or fronting a group. That’s a trend. You’re going to see more of that here in the next couple of days.

Good Cop and Bad Cop Review Jan Bell & the Maybelles

Good Cop (on her phone, outside the American Folk Art Museum): See any jaywalkers?

Bad Cop (on his phone, out of breath, across Broadway on 64th Street): Ha, just me [sprints across just ahead of the light, and a taxi edging into the crosswalk]. How’d you get here before me?

Good Cop: I took the D and walked from Columbus Circle. And I didn’t jaywalk.

Bad Cop: Jaywalking is the new stop-and-frisk. Makes sense: after all, cars are hitting people and killing them left and right in this neighborhood. While we’re at it, we should start fining banks for every time they get robbed. They wouldn’t be getting robbed if they had better security.

Good Cop [sarcastically]: Or if they weren’t banks.

Bad Cop: They would be if they were bodegas. Anyway, let’s go inside. It’s freezing out here.

Good Cop: We’re here for the Friday night show with folk singer Jan Bell and her all-female band the Maybelles.

Bad Cop: You shouldn’t call her a folk singer. People will think she’s some sappy girl singing top 40.

Good Cop: People who like real folk music will get it. What is folk music, after all? It’s songs by songwriters who were most likely illiterate, that were passed down through an oral tradition since those people probably couldn’t read music either.

Bad Cop: Folk music has a bad name. It’s actually really creepy, the good stuff anyway.

Good Cop: Jan Bell knows that for sure. What did she say, how many happy love songs are there really, anyway?

Bad Cop: You’re better at the verbatim stuff than I am. But she’s right.

Good Cop: I’m so psyched for this show. Jan is playing acoustic guitar, that’s Rima Fand from Sherita on fiddle and Tina Lama on bass. And that looks like Katy Stone with the banjo.

Bad Cop [looks around, scowling]: This is so lame. We’re the only ones under sixty here.

Good Cop: What do you mean? That guy over there’s our age…

Bad Cop: That’s the bass player’s boyfriend. And there’s quilts on the walls. I feel like I’m in a nursing home.

Good Cop: This is actually a great place to see a show right after work. Lara Ewen, who’s also a fantastic Americana singer, books the music here and she has great taste. Plus the people from the Jalopy have a hand in it.

Bad Cop: These shows start at 5:30. Who gets out of work by 5:30 on a Friday?

Good Cop: Well, we made it, didn’t we?

Bad Cop: Under the wire. This is strictly a neighborhood thing. That’s New York in 2014 for you: everything is local. Local is the new central. All these little micro-scenes and no central scene, no way for a band to gain any traction.

Good Cop: Jan Bell has plenty of traction. She tours the US and the UK too.

Bad Cop: She has a motorhome. And she’s British so she’s got friends over there to put her up.

Good Cop: Well, I say good for her [the trio of Bell, Fand and Lama launch into a sad, shuffling minor-key song with three-part vocal harmonies].

Bad Cop: Wow, they’re really working the acoustics here.

Good Cop: I see they moved where the performers play from one side of the room to the other. This natural reverb is magical! It didn’t take Jan thirty seconds before she came up with a game plan – her voice can sometimes be pillowy but this is just plain heavenly!

Bad Cop: Yeah, she’s pillowy one minute, biting and bitter the next. She’s found her zone up there and she’s gonna haunt us. The bass player’s also a really good singer. You notice?

Good Cop: She really hits those high notes.

Bad Cop: A jazz player, obviously, She knows when to chill but she’s always got something interesting, something unexpected going on the low end, not just BUMP-bump, BUMP-bump, know what I mean?

Good Cop: Rima’s amazing too – I’m hearing all kinds of unexpected slides, and harmonies in what she’s playing. And she’s a great singer too.

Bad Cop: Yeah, but the lyrics are dumb. What’s this song about, Union Square?

Good Cop: No, it’s a cover. It’s The L and N Don’t Stop Here Anymore, by an English folk singer, Jean Ritchie. It’s a coal mining song. Jan did it on her album from about a year and a half ago with all these mining songs on it. Her grandfather was a miner.

Bad Cop: Now what about this next song they’re doing? This has gotta be American. Oldtime country blues…

Good Cop: This is Mining Camp Blues. It’s from the 1920s, maybe earlier, I dunno. Trixie Smith recorded it, Alice Gerrard covered it and that’s how Jan discovered it. You know, passing stuff down through the generations. Same old, same old, huh?

Bad Cop: Yeah. Now this next one I know, You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive, this is a Steve Earle song. He did it on his bluegrass album.

Good Cop: Actually not. This sad, haunting song is by Darrell Scott. It’s great we can hear all the instruments and yet there’s so much reverb on everything. It sounds so, well, authentic.

Bad Cop: This is a weird neighborhood for me but I gotta say that I am impressed by the acoustics here. And everybody who works here is so nice! It’s like we’re in Iowa. Or a nursing home in Iowa.

Good Cop: C’mon, admit it, you’re having a good time.

Bad Cop: Now THIS one I know! Loretta Lynn. Blue Kentucky Girl. Very different version from the original – the girls are doing it very low key, hushed, kind of a lullaby.

Good Cop: I like how she intersperses the originals, and the classics, and the obscure ones. That sad waltz, you know, “I’ve lost the right to love you.”

Bad Cop: This next one’s even creepier. A mail order bride sent off to Idaho where she’ll probably end up dying. Life was hard back then, huh?

Good Cop: That one’s actually a new song. It was written by Karen Dahlstrom, who was Jan’s bass player for awhile. It’s on her album, which is all new songs about Idaho and the old west, but written in an oldtime vernacular. It’s awfully good. I have it.

Bad Cop: You know this is where this band loses me. Cover Hank Williams, ok, but Ramblin’ Man? A woman singing a song written for a guy just doesn’t cut it for me. It’s like Joan Baez singing The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. Virgil Cain is my name, NOT.

Good Cop: But listen to the vocals! And the harmonies! They really get this song, it’s so sad, and so haunted, and so full of doom and dread! You like this Nashville gothic stuff, right?

Bad Cop: Actually I do. OK. I changed my mind. I like these girls’ version. But I still don’t think women should try singing songs clearly meant for a guy, or vice versa.

Good Cop: OK, I think this is their last song. Another wistful waltz, a love song to New York written down under the Manhattan Bridge where Bell runs the Saturday night show at 68 Jay Street Bar. What a pretty way to bring it down and end the night. I tell you, we are going places with this blog. This is the third fantastic band we’ve been asked to go see in the past week. Stick with me and you’ll be famous!

Bad Cop: Don’t count your chickens. My guess is that we’re on the shuttle back to Columbus…

Good Cop: You mean Scranton.

Bad Cop: Uh, whatever. At best, we’re the B team. The only reason we were enlisted for this one is because the blog covered another show of hers last summer. So they needed a new angle. That’s all.

Good Cop: Be careful with that breaking-the-fourth-wall stuff. You know you’re not supposed to do that.

Bad Cop: That’s why I’m the bad guy [pulls a flask from his inside jacket pocket and takes a slug]. See you in Col…I mean Scranton.

Good Cop: Oh yeah, I almost forgot, Jan Bell has booked the night of February 23 at the Jalopy for an all-star tribute to Pete Seeger. It starts around 8, it’s ten bucks and there will be a lot of good usual New York Americana suspects onstage. If we’re lucky Jan will do her version of Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream like she did tonight.

Beautiful, Haunting, Evocative Mining Songs from Jan Bell

Jan Bell has one of the most distinctive and beautiful voices in any style of music. She’s never sung or written more vividly or poignantly than she does on her new concept album Dream of the Miner’s Child. A miner’s granddaughter, she traces the seam of coal that runs under the Atlantic from Wales to the Carolinas to make connection between the traditional songs of the Yorkshire mining country where she grew up, and the Appalachian ballads of her adopted land. A small ocean liner’s worth of Americana talent, including her bandmates from the acclaimed all-female Maybelles, joins her on this virtually all-acoustic collection recorded at various stops around the world. Soaring with vocal harmonies and prominent violin, it’s a richly purist, gorgeously subtle album, much of it propelled with a casually expert country swing by bassist Tim Luntzel and drummer Brian Geltner.

It opens with a briskly plaintive version of Jean Ritchie’s The L and N Don’t Stop Here Anymore (referring to a railroad rather than a New York subway line), Bell’s honey-and-nettle vocals contrasting with an austerely soaring Rima Fand violin solo. Yorkshire Water, an elegant chamber pop-flavored original, sets nuanced harmonies from Melissa Carper and the Be Good Tanyas‘ Samantha Parton over spare lines from Truckstop Honeymoon guitarist Mike West and pianist Katie Euliss.

Bell does Trixie Smith’s oldtime Mining Camp Blues closer to Davis Sisters-style country, joining harmonies with Alice Gerrard, Megan Palmer supplying rustic fiddle ambience. The title track, a wistful duet with Jolie Holland, looks back both to the 1925 Vernon Dalhart version as well as the original 1907 Welsh mining disaster ballad. Ewan MacColl’s Dirty Old Town, a duet with Will Scott, is considerably more subtle – and strangely evocative – than the haphazard Pogues version.

Another Bell original, Elsecar Grace aka John Willliams, carries a cruelly ironic narrative with a vintage soul/gospel melody. Her midtempo take on Darrell Scott’s haunting You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive is nonchalantly chilling, while Juliet Russell adds her voice to an absolutely otherworldly a-cappella duet on Brian O’Higgins A Stor Mo Chroi.

M Shanghai String Band’s Philippa Thompson and Hilary Hawke join Bell on her Maybelles bandmate Karen Dahlstrom’s The Miner’s Bride, a brooding tale of a mail-order marriage in the old west made even more ominous by Thompson’s ghostly singing saw. Casey Neill shares vocals and adds electric guitar on a gently insistent, impactful take of Billy Bragg’s workingman’s anthem Between the Wars. Bell follows that with a Woody Guthrie lyric, Union Sea and makes ragtime-tinged antique pop out of it.

The catchiest of the originals here is Aunt Molly Jackson, the Carper Family (Melissa Carper, Beth Chrisman, Jenn Miori and Brennen Leigh) adding rich harmonies to this brisk oldschool C&W number. The most British of the tracks here is Carried by the Wind, Bell joined by Salty Pink’s Amelia Sauter and  Leah Houghtaling. Bell and Palmer end the album with an a-cappella take of the traditional Irish ballad Factory Girl. Life in mining country on both sides of the Atlantic was hard; Bell and her all-star cast deliver these songs with a potent bittersweetness that reflects both the hopes and grim realities of the people who created them, at the same time adding memorably to the repertoire. It’s not a stretch to imagine future generations of Americana musicians referencing the Jan Bell versions of many of these songs: this album secures her place among the finest and most individualistic musicians in that world. Bell plays the album release show at Barbes at 8 PM this Friday, Dec 14; high-voltage Balkan band Sherita (a Raya Brass Band spinoff) kicks off the evening at 7.

Another Creepy Winner from Bobtown

Among oldtime Americana bands, no one has better original songs than Bobtown. That’s probably because the band has four first-rate songwriters. Between them, percussionist/keyboardist Katherine Etzel, singer Jen McDearman, guitarist Karen Dahlstrom and bassist Fred Stesney blend their voices and instruments in a dark mix of bluegrass, country blues, gospel and other rustic Americana styles alongside new band member and brilliant guitarist/banjoist Alan Lee Backer. Their new album Trouble I Wrought also features cameos by drummers Dave Ciolino-Volano and Charlie Shaw and pedal steel player Mike Nolan along with M Shanghai String Band’s Philippa Thompson’s stark violin, and Dock Oscar Stern’s wry jawharp on one song. The new record expands on the eclectically haunting sound of their brilliant 2010 debut: this time out, they’re a little less stark, a little more lush but just as grim, fixated on death and despair. Consider this stuff antique folk songs for a new century.

On this album, Etzel is the main songwriter. Bobtown’s first album has a number of her songs written in the style of 19th century chain gang chants, and this album opens with one, Mama’s Got the Backbeat – which with different production, could be trip-hop, or gospel-flavored hip-hop. But that’s hardly the only style she works here. Skipping Stone is part banjo-fueled gospel bluegrass, part oldtime hokum blues with jaunty Roulette Sisters-style harmonies: “Today’s precious lover is tomorrow’s tasty bourguignon,” mmmm…

Etzel’s most lavish song here is Burn Your Building Down, a sepulchral grand guignol anthem with swirly violin, banjo and harmonies, building to a towering angst in the same vein as Vespertina. By contrast, her title track clocks in at barely two minutes, its rage semi-concealed in a soaring gospel arrangement over an organ drone. Resurrection Mary is a cheery, harmony-fueled Boswell Sisters-style swing tune…about a murder and a ghost. And Coalville, the lurid tale of a doomed couple now sharing a graveyard, reaches for a plush Nashville gothic ambience.

McDearman seems to specialize in sarcastically cheery, upbeat bluegrass songs. One Public Enemy would have been a perfect fit on one of Dolly Parton’s bluegrass albums (hey Dolly, there’s still time…). And McDearman maxes out the suspense factor in the otherwise very pretty Magilla Lee, as the listener grows closer and closer to finding out what happened as the poor girl waited to die. Dahlstrom contributes only one song here, Battle Creek, but it’s the best one on the album. With her searing gospel wail rising over an ominous minor-key backdrop, she paints a cruel portrait of a farm girl slowly losing it in early Rust Belt-era Michigan. Dahlstrom is no stranger to historically-informed songwriting: her Idaho-themed solo album, Gem State, was one of last year’s most intense releases in any style of music.

Not everything is so overtly bleak. Stesney’s two songs here each work a blackly humorous vein: Live Slow Die Old, which comes across as a mashup of Smog, Flugente and the Mountain Goats, and the irresistibly funny faux-gospel Flood Water Rising, possibly the only country gospel song to namecheck both L. Ron Hubbard and Herbert Hoover. There’s also a deadpan cover of Don’t Fear the Reaper, done as tersely creepy Nashville gothic, Backer’s banjo carrying the hook under the womens’ angelic harmonies, a terse banjo/accordion interlude in place of Buck Dharma’s shredding guitar solo. Like Bobtown’s previous album, this is one of the best of the year. The band’s next gig is Sept 21 at 9 PM on an excellent bill with eclectic alt-country siren Alana Amram & the Rough Gems at Union Hall for $10.

Bobtown Kickstarts a New Album

By now the Kickstarter parodies have made their way to pretty much everybody’s inbox – good grief, another band begging for money? On the other hand, acts as defiantly individualistic as the Oxygen Ponies, the Universal Thump and Serena Jost have successfully financed recordings through Kickstarter. What’s cool about Kickstarter is that it gives anybody with an extra twenty bucks the opportunity to feel good about helping their favorite artists; more problematic issues like creative control creep in as the level of financing escalates. And it can be just as sad watching your favorite band send out desperate plea after plea as it is to imagine old J.S. Bach losing his eyesight, furiously scribbling the Brandenburg Concertos by the dim light of a candle, hoping that some Marquis (or Count or Duke or whatever the hell that particular one-percenter was) would like the music enough that he’d want more…and be willing to pay for it.

Dark acoustic Americana band Bobtown are going about their Kickstarter campaign a little differently. If you really want to get in at the top end, a grand will get you all the goodies that all the lesser levels of support give you: all kinds of signed merch and memorabilia, plus you get to be on the album and on the video, plus they’ll record not only your outgoing phone message, but also any song of your choice. Beyond all that, they’ll also do a house concert for you. Consider: if you can find the space to fit a hundred people, you could sell tickets at ten bucks a head and actually make money off their Kickstarter campaign! Maybe this is the future of the music industry…

Obviously, none of this would be worth anything if Bobtown wasn’t a great band. Their 2010 debut album was one of that year’s most deliciously entertaining, eclectic and sometimes creepy releases, with Katherine Etzel’s rustic field hollers, Jen McDearman’s casually menacing bluegrass-pop songs and strong picking from the rest of the band. This year’s follow-up promises to be just as diverse: guitarist Karen Dahlstrom’s recently released solo album, Gem State, a haunting collection of acoustic songs set in oldtime Idaho, was one of the half-dozen best albums of this past year, so there’s no telling what she might have ready for the new Bobtown album along with her bandmates.

In case the dark quality of this band’s music might lead you to believe that the members of the group are all brooding introverts, you are in for a BIG surprise, as this video confirms, word up. Also check out their hilarious cover of Blue Oyster Cult’s Don’t Fear the Reaper, which should be food for thought if you have money to burn and feel like getting your own personal Nashville gothic cover version of your favorite song – Enter Sandman, maybe? Bobtown are at the Jalopy on the 5th at 9 (on a doublebill with excellent concert harpist/songwriterKatie Brennan) and then on the 28th at 68 Jay St. Bar at 8:30.