New York venues should have more early shows. That’s not to say that staying out til the wee hours isn’t fun…but the train home afterward, or lack thereof? Ouch. For those of us in New York who live in neighborhoods poorly served by mass transit (which is just about everybody, right?) the American Folk Art Museum just south of the triangle where Amsterdam Avenue crosses Broadway on the Upper West Side offers free, 5:30 PM shows on Friday nights. And the performers can be fantastic. Turkish folk band Dolunay played an amazing couple of sets there last week; this week’s lineup was an acoustic Americana bill of songwriter Karen Hudson, fiddler Melody Allegra Berger and comedic honkytonk band Trailer Radio doing a stripped-down acoustic duo show, and all three acts were excellent.
Hudson almost always plays with a band behind her and for that reason might not be the first person you would think would be a good solo acoustic performer. But she was tremendous. She’s an elegant tunesmith and evocative lyricist who often uses an aphoristic, vintage C&W vernacular without sounding hokey or derivative, and she’s grown into an excellent, subtly nuanced singer. Some of her songs were funny, like Nicotine, her irresistibly amusing ode to the death-defying lure of tobacco. Others, like I Thought I Died, with its litany of near-misses, had the matter-of-fact resoluteness that runs through much of her songwriting. Others were haunting, in a memorably Mary Lee Kortes vein. The best of these was Mama Was a Trainwreck (Daddy Was a Train) – the best track on Hudson’s new Eric Ambel-produced album Sonic Bloom. It rocks pretty hard on record; stripped to its acoustic roots, it had a harrowing oldtime Britfolk feel, a bitterly surreal account of growing up with a father who, as Hudson put it, “was never able to change his ways.” She revisited that theme on a quieter, more reflective number before picking up the pace and ending with Late Bloomer and its gently insistent, optimistic nature imagery.
Fiddler Melody Allegra Berger picked up the energy further, plucking and soaring and singing here way through a mix of bluegrass and Americana classics alongside banjo player Bennett Sullivan. She’s true to her name, tuneful and fast. He’s got an intriguing album of his own out, and the two played the title track, Lady Nora. You might not think that an atmospheric ballad could be played on the banjo, but with his intriguing use of harmonics, that’s where Sullivan went with it. Berger led the duo through mix of instrumentals along with several vocal numbers, showing off a brittle vibrato reminiscent of but not deferential to Hazel Dickens. They opened with a romp through Soldier’s Joy, then a little later did a couple of songs about being hanged, as Berger gleefully explained, first the instrumental Hangman’s Reel and then Hang Me, which turned out to be one of the seemingly unlimited number of versions of the old folk song I’ve Been All Around This World. They wound up the set with a couple more hard-charging bluegrass tunes, setting the stage for Trailer Radio frontwoman Shannon Brown and her brilliant guitarist bandmate David Weiss, whose lightning flatpicking, big western swing chords and edgy blues kept the energy at full throttle.
As Brown told the crowd, she got run out of her hometown of Man, West Virginia “for being too impatient.” She really has a handle on cornball C&W humor, and her songs can be hilarious. The two mixed wryly amusing numbers like Football Widow (about a woman who uses her tv-addict husband and his dumb friends as an excuse to have more fun than them on a Sunday afternoon), He’s a Six (about a guy who’s just thisclose to being a decent choice of boyfriend), Two Tavern Town (inspired by the dead-end beer joints where Brown grew up) and the wry Too Old and Way Too Ugly, with a handful of slowly unwinding, unexpectedly somber blues tunes.