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The 20 Best New York Concerts of 2020 Which Can Be Publicly Discussed

When Andrew Cuomo declared himself dictator and ordered a lockdown of the state of New York on March 16, that didn’t stop musicians from playing, or prevent crowds from coming out to see them. Chances are that most of the players you know have been doing underground shows since then. But because a lot of those performances were forbidden under lockdown regulations, careers could be jeopardized if the Cuomo regime were to find out about them.

Someday the whole story can be told and those artists, and their supporters, can receive due credit for their heroism, for helping to keep hope alive when it seemed there was none. For the time being, here’s a salute to the artists who played the year’s most entertaining shows before the lockdown, as well as a handful who played dictatorially approved gigs in the time since.

There were three multiple-night stands this past year that deserve special mention. Over the course of barely a couple of weeks in February, the Danish String Quartet played the entire Beethoven cycle at Alice Tully Hall. The group’s chops are world-class, but it was their insight, and attention to detail, and flair for picking up on both the hilarity and the angst in the immortal works as well as the more obscure parts of that repertoire that made those sold-out evenings so unforgettable.

At the end of January, Juilliard staged an equally memorable series of concerts featuring mostly obscure works by women composers from over the past couple of centuries. The quality of the material, as well as the student ensembles’ performances, were astonishingly strong. Much as it was rewarding to see some better-known works like the Ruth Crawford Seeger String Quartet, and Grażyna Bacewicz’s withering second Cello Concerto on the bill, it was even more fascinating to discover pieces like Israeli composer Verdina Shlonsky’s phantasmagorical 1949 piano suite Pages From the Diary. along with dozens of chamber and symphonic pieces, practically all of them New York premieres. Juilliard’s Joel Sachs, who programmed the shows and tracked down the material, deserves immense credit for what was obviously a mammoth job. Too bad concerts at Juilliard no longer officially exist – and unless we get rid of the lockdown, the continued existence of Juilliard itself is imperiled.

And, of course, in the middle of January there was Golden Fest, New York’s wild, annual Balkan and Balkan-adjacent music event, which always raises the bar impossibly high for the rest of the year. Slashing, female-fronted Russian Romany party band Romashka, slinky brass band Slavic Soul Party, the volcanic Raya Brass Band, the even louder rembetiko heavy metal band Greek Judas, agelessly soulful Armenian jazz multi-reedman Souren Baronian, a rare New York appearance by the Elem All-Stars, Lyuti Chushki – Bulgarian for “Red Hot Chili Peppers”  – romping original klezmer band Litvakus and the Navatman Music Collective – this hemisphere’s only Indian carnatic choir – were highlights among dozens of other acts over the course of about ten hours of music.

In keeping with the annual tradition here, the rest of the concerts are listed in chronological order. 2020 was looking so good until the lockdown, wasn’t it!

Andrew Henderson at St. Thomas Church, 1/5/20
The organist played a sometimes stately, sometimes thrilling program of works by Buxtehude, Howells, Reger and others

 Linda Draper at the American Folk Art Museum, 1/10/20
With her calm, resonant chorister voice, the eclectic songwriter mixed up edgy earlier material as well as several characteristically, pensively intense, lyrically brilliant new songs.

Sara Serpa at the Zurcher Gallery, 1/11/20
This era’s most luminously haunting jazz singer/composer aired out a soaring, immersive mix of new material featuring brilliant guitarist Andre Matos and keyboardist Dov Manski

The Susan Alcorn Quintet at Winter Jazzfest, 1/11/20
This era’s great jazz pedal steel player mixed up a set full of new material, by turns immersively haunting, raptly atmospheric and sometimes riotously funny

Mames Babagenush in the Curry Hill neighborhood. 1/12/20
This supremely tight but feral Danish klezmer band started out in the afternoon in a church basement and ended the night with a crazed coda at a scruffy hotel. A lot of aquavit was involved: it didn’t phase them. And they’d just played Golden Fest the previous night.

Souren Baronian and Big Lazy at Barbes, 1/24/20
The octogenarian king of Middle Eastern jazz followed by the similarly slinky, minor key-fixated, chillingly cinematic and strangely danceable noir soundtrack band at the top of their game. Best twinbill of the year.

Saawee at Flushing Town Hall. 2/21/20
Violinist Sita Chay and percussionist Jihye Kim’s all-female Korean dance-and-ritual group summoned the spirits via a witchy, hypnotic, delicately shamanic performance

Ben Holmes’ Naked Lore at Barbes, 2/22/20
With his otherworldly, crystalline trumpet, edgy Balkan chromatics and wry sense of humor, Holmes’ trio with guitarist Brad Shepik and percussionist Shane Shanahan built biting variations on subtly familiar klezmer themes.

Alicia Svigals and Donald Sosin play a live movie score at Temple Ansche Chesed, 2/23/20
The iconic klezmer violinist and her pianist collaborator delivered a dynamic mix of haunting traditional tunes, spirited originals and some coy classical interludes as a live score to E.A. Dupont’s irrepressibly sweet, groundbreaking 1923 German silent film The Ancient Law

Lara Ewen at Rockwood Music Hall, 2/24/20
Well known as the impresario behind the amazing, mostly-weekly Free Music Fridays concert series that ran for years at the American Folk Art Museum before being put on ice by the lockdown, Ewen is also a songwriter of note. And a hell of a singer, and a storyteller, and she’s really come into her own as an acoustic guitarist.

Jackson Borges at the organ at Central Synagogue, 2/25/20
Another excellent, long-running performance series that bit the dust when Cuomo’s insane lockdown regulations were imposed was organist Gail Archer’s semimonthly Prism Organ Concerts in midtown. Borges was the latest of a long line of global performers to play there, with a dynamic mix ranging from a majestic Mendelssohn sonata, to many more obscure works

Nicholas Capozzoli at St. Thomas Church, 3/1/20
What, another organ concert? Hey, this past year officially got cut off in mid-March. And this was a rousing one, with another mighty Mendelssohn sonata plus airy modern works by Leguay and Peters

Slavic Soul Party at Barbes, 3/3/20
Their mainstage show at Golden Fest was all the more traditional, blazing Balkan stuff. This one had the hip-hop, and the funk, and the James Brown and the Ellington. With breaks for European tours, they played this little Brooklyn boite just about every week for fifteen years until the lockdown.

The Vienna Yiddish Duo at the  Austrian Cultural Center, 3/10/20
A rare mix of edgy, Moldovan-flavored versions of klezmer classics as well as some ubiquitously familiar sounds from extrovert pianist Roman Grinberg and virtuoso clarinetist Sasha Danilov

Dolunay at Barbes, 3/12/20
Another one of the many Golden Fest bands on this list, playing an undulating, plaintive set of Turkish laments and originals…with just three people in the audience for most of the night.

The Pedro Giraudo Tango Quartet at Barbes, 3/14/20
The possibly last-ever indoor crowd at the historic Park Slope venue gathered for a sweeping, gorgeous set of originals and a couple of Piazzolla classics.

The American Symphony Orchestra String Quartet at Bryant Park, 9/14/20
The first of two outdoor shows featuring works by black composers was an alternately stirring and stark mix of material by Florence Price, Jessie Montgomery and William Grant Still.

And that’s where it ends. Get ready for some fireworks in 2021!

A Characteristically Rich, Diverse Year of Shows at Manhattan’s Best Venue for Acoustic and Folk Music

The American Folk Art Museum won the annual award for Best Manhattan Venue here back in 2016. It would be just as easy to say that again in 2019. Impresario Lara Ewen‘s mostly-weekly Free Music Fridays series is still the most transit-accessible way to discover new songwriting and traditional music talent in this city, artists from all over the world covet playing in the museum’s rich natural reverb…and you can get a glass of wine here for a third of what it would cost you at Rockwood Music Hall.

As you would expect at a museum whose equally amazing exhibits document folk art and outsider art spanning the past few centuries, there’s plenty of folk music here. But even the oldtime sounds extend well beyond the world of fingerpicked front-porch acoustic guitar tunes. The best traditional show here this year was by singer Vienna Carroll, a historian whose insights into a set of rousing blues, gospel and string band songs reflected the triumphs of African-Americans over 19th century slaveowner terrorism and racism rather than the more common narrative of endless suffering. Queen Esther, a Folk Art Museum regular, reaffirmed that same fearlessly subversive esthetic at a couple of shows in February and July, featuring both Eastern Seaboard blues and soul-tinged originals.

Other entertaining oldtime folk shows included sets by the harmony-driven Triboro in May, as well as Irish tunesmith Brendan O’Shea (whose defiant, populist originals were even better) in July. Of all the original songwriters here, the most shattering was Karen Dahlstrom, whose November set featured a lot of material from her latest release No Man’s Land (a lock for best short album of 2019).  With her fearsome but meticulously nuanced alto, she aired out the fiery, gospel-infused title track, a Metoo-era broadside, as well as the metaphorically haunting After the Flood – a look at both personal and global apocalypses – and a new number, My Benevolent Destroyer, a chilling portrait of a broken marriage through the prism of imperialist domination.

Joshua Garcia, with his flinty voice and harrowing, Phil Ochs-inspired narratives, put the struggles of new immigrants and battered women in potently political perspective, along with the most chillingly allusive song about the Hiroshima bombing ever written. Miriam Elhajli sang in both English and Spanish, looking outward at the grim political climate as well as more inwardly, with intricate guitar fingerpicking and some intriguing jazz and Latin American riffs.

Niall Connolly held the crowd rapt with his brooding, tersely crystallized songs of struggle and emotional abandonment and rage against the Trumpies (a reaction that ran high at practically every show here this year). Soulstress Dina Regine, who played here in both April and June, was much the same, thematically, although her music draws more on classic 1960s American grooves.

How torchy singer Jeanne Marie Boes managed to get so much epic power and range out of her tiny keyboard is a mystery, although her towering, angst-fueled ballads and a couple of detours into darkly majestic blues had a relentlessly direct intensity. With her resonant chorister’s voice and deadpan surrealism, cellist/singer Meaner Pencil a.k.a. Lenna M. Pierce (she got her stage name the online anagram generator, she explained) was just as gripping, in a completely different vein.

Songstress/acoustic guitarist Kalyani Singh illuminated a dark inner world with a similar, often minimalistic focus, while southwestern singer Kate Vargas got the crowd going with singalongs and innumerable chances to have fun with beats. And Feral Foster – who runs the Jalopy’s longtime Roots & Ruckus series – didn’t let being under the weather get in the way of a characteristically haunted, expertly fingerpicked set of grim Nashville gothic laments and ballads.

The American Folk Art Museum’s Free Music Fridays series resumes January 10 at 5:30 PM with the soaring, brilliantly lyrical Linda Draper. There’s also an ongoing free series of guitar jazz concerts most every Wednesday at 2 PM with Bill Wurtzel and bassist Jay Leonhart.

Folk Noir and Fearlessly Political Songwriting: Still Going Strong in the East Village

Sunday night at Scratcher Bar in the East Village, Lara Ewen and Niall Connolly strung together a couple hours worth of memorably surreal narratives and catchy acoustic guitar tune with a crafty expertise that’s become increasingly rare in this city.

Ewen, who is probably best known as the founder and fearless impresario of the mostly-weekly Free Music Fridays series at the American Folk Art Museum, is also a distinctive tunesmith in her own right and opened this particular show. There was a lot of fresh new material in her set, an auspicious preview of her long-awaited new album, mostly likely due out sometime next year. This time out, there was more bluesy grit in her voice than usual, and she fingerrpicked a lot more as well.

“I don’t write political songs,” she told the crowd, “Politics is something we tend to do in every moment of our lives,” she explained, prefacing a witheringly sarcastic new number about an sexual assault survivor, and then a kid who narrowly misses getting shot by the cops, each emphasizing how incredibly lucky they are.

Another aphoristic, darkly sparkling new song concerned a guy who manages to dig himself into a hole where he’s comfortable, way down in the dark. In the final verse, he brings a length of rope down there, although Ewen never reveals what exactly he does with it. Her other character studies, some new and some older and full of strange, unresolved chords, had similarly lingering imagery, situated among the down and out, or the about to be down and out. Like hell Ewen isn’t political: she just doesn’t preach.

Watching Connolly parse a series of terse, judiciously picked tunes, it’s obvious that he’s a rock guy: it was easy to imagine him playing those lines on a Strat with a rhythm section behind him. He’s more overtly political than Ewen, with an unassuming, raw, often melancholy vocal delivery. The big audience singalong was a soaringly anthemic portrait of the last days of Irish Revolutionary hero James Connolly (an ancestor, maybe?): “Lily, don’t you cry, I’ve lived the fullest of lives” was the chorus.

The best of the new ones was a spot-on, strange account of a late-night Rockaways bus ride (interrupted for Miller High Life and a shot of well whiskey at a watering hole along the way), and the kind of weirdos you meet there, everybody sharing the near dream-state surrealism of outer-borough afterwork fatigue.

Connolly is also a great storyteller without his guitar (Ewen said that she’d stolen all her stage banter from him: not a bad place to start). The funniest tale of the night concerned a bus driver who pulled to the curb for a second, exited the vehicle and shouted his order for fried rice to the Chinese restaurant cook taking a break across the street. Connolly, a populist to the core, explained that he has a special appreciation for any employee who likes to bend the rules.This particular takeout joint’s fried rice is apparently worth a risk.

Connolly’s next gig is Oct 17 at 8:30 PM at the Hunterian at 413 E 70th St. between First and York Aves.. Theres also an excellent bill coming up at the Folk Art Museum on Oct 18 at at 6 PM with  Sharon Goldman – one of the great tunesmiths to come out of the NYC acoustic scene since the turn of the century – and dark, brilliantly lyrical oldtimey songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Pete Lanctot.

Celebrating One of Manhattan’s Most Fearless Impresarios at the Borough’s Best Listening Room

There aren’t many venues left anywhere in New York where you can walk in on just about any show night and randomly discover a great new band or solo artist. But you can still do that at the American Folk Art Museum. The museum earned this blog’s award for Best Manhattan Venue a couple of years ago, largely because of impresario Lara Ewen, who brings in a wildly diverse and frequently excellent mix of global folk styles along with Americana and singer-songwriters.

Ewen is turning fifty this June 14, and an all-star cast (she isn’t saying who, just yet) are on tap to come out to celebrate at her mostly-weekly Free Music Fridays series at the museum starting at 5:30 PM. Ewen’s booking (and her songwriting) reflect her background growing up in working-class, multicultural Queens. Three recent discoveries there – for this blog, at least – reflect Ewen’s ferocious dedication to bringing in music that represents the real New York.

In his debut at the museum this past spring, Greg Connors played electric guitar – not something you’d expect at a venue originally know for folk music, but Ewen likes to defy the odds. He ran his axe through a pedalboard with a lot of effects, flinging chords out into the space’s natural reverb and building to stomping, singalong choruses. His lyrics are edgy and cynical; his songs tell brooding stories set among the down-and-out without being cliched. His tantalizingly short set, clocking in at just over a half an hour, reminded of 90s underground songwriting stars Matt Keating or Jim Allen from time to time. If Connors had been around back then, he probably would have been playing CB’s Gallery and Sin-e and the rest of the East Village songwriter venues, all of them gone in a blitzkrieg of gentrification and real estate bubble madness. Connors hangs his hat in Peekskill now – he was awestruck at how attentively the audience at the museum responded, considering that he’s used to singing over crowds of drunks.

In her museum debut a week later, Ruby Landen explored several more traditional folk styles, from Appalachian-flavored balladry to French chanson. Her spare, elegant, eclectic guitar fingerpicking matched her low-key, purposefully plaintive vocals. She’s a relative newcomer to the New York Americana scene, so at the time of her show there was little on the web about her beyond a couple of youtube videos. But Ewen books a lot of good up-and-coming artists regardless of how little-known they are.

Another individualistic artist who’s just getting started and made her debut there last month is Yurby, who has even less of a presence online. There’s nobody in New York who sounds anything like her. Backed for most of her show by a bluesy, jazz-influenced electric guitar, she showed off a disarmingly clear, pure soul voice throughout a catchy mix of slowly unwinding ballads. Once in awhile there’d be a hint of a latin Caribbean influence, but otherwise, it wouldn’t be fair to pigeonhole her as neosoul. And her lyrics deal with empowerment and fighting injustice as much as the usual battle of the sexes. At the end of her set, she treated the crowd to one of those anthems, in Spanish.

Who knows – it wouldn’t be a stretch to see all three of these artists at Ewen’s birthday party. And maybe Ewen herself will treat the crowd to a few numbers – she won’t admit it, but she has one of the most magically mutable voices in town.

A Rare Music Impresario with Actual Talent

Lara Ewen may be best known as the irrepressible impresario behind the Free Music Fridays series at the American Folk Art Museum, which with the ongoing disappearance of the downtown acoustic scene has arguably become Manhattan’s best listening room for folk and Americana sounds. But Ewen is also one of New York’s most magnetic singers, and a strong songwriter as well. Over the years, her music has gotten darker and gone deeper into gothic Americana, often in a Tom Waits vein. Her hardscrabble Queens roots may have something to do with that.

She’s playing the Scratcher Bar on 5th Street just east of Bowery on Feb 26 at around 7, when you might find fellow songsmith Kelley Swindall tending bar. It’s an intimate space, and a convenient time on a work night so getting there a little early wouldn’t be a bad idea: artists who book venues tend to be popular for reasons other than their art.

Ewen is the rare one who isn’t. Her definitive album is The Wishing Stone Songs, from 2013. But there’s other solid material in her catalog. A listen back to her 2007 cd Ghosts and Gasoline – which happily has made it to Spotify – reaffirms that. Her band on the record is excellent: much as there’s a late 90s influence, there’s no cheesy drum machine, no cliched trip-hop beat. Guitarist Howard Rappaport jangles and clangs, judiciously over the tight, low-key rhythm section of bassist Donald Facompre and drummer Jordan Lash.

Ewen sings in character, with unexpected nuance for someone who doesn’t come from a jazz background. One minute she’ll be serenading you with that crystal-clear, maple-sugar soprano, another she’ll be gritty, then maybe throwing some twang at you, depending on context.

The album’s opening track, Josephine, has a brisk, methodically vamping, hypnotic quality, an allusive portrait of bitterness. The Airport Song is one of those blue-collar character studies that Ewen writes so vividly, part country, part spacious big-sky tableau, Rappaport’s pedal steel soaring overhead. Likewise, the propulsive Untethered is a surreeal portrait of outer-borough disconnection and anomie, bringing to mind a first-rate early-zeros Brooklyn songwriter. Barbara Brousal.

Turning Blue sways along gently, a quietly savage portrait of a a woman settling for less than she should. The album’s most devastating track is Our Song, just Ewen and her acoustic guitar, a gorgeously bittersweet and unexpectedly generous post-breakup reflection.

The oldest track on the album, Clear, will resonate for anyone who wouldn’t trade this city for any other temptation. 20 Years Ago, an aging beauty’s lament, foreshadows where Ewen would go on her next album. Then Ewen picks up the pace with the brooding highway narrative Manahttan Kansas

Facompre walks jazz scales under Ewen’s Rickie Lee Jones-ish delivery in Misery Wholesale. The album winds up with Blessed, a hopeful love song to a down-and-out character, and A Way to You, which is a dead ringer for a well-known Dylan hit. While Ewen typically plays her most recent material onstage, she might bust out one or two of these if you’re lucky. 

Jeanne Marie Boes Channels the Soul of a Troubled Time in New York

“I can’t take it anymore,” Jeanne Marie Boes intoned, hushed and low, standing resolutely behind her electric piano a couple of Fridays ago at the American Folk Art Museum. “All that’s left are roses underfoot.” She wasn’t talking politics: her big theme is heartbreak. And she takes it to the mountaintop, to forbidding heights, Wuthering, Wuthering, Wuthering Heights! Heathcliff, you bastard!

Yet much as Boes can bring the Kate Bush drama, and belt with anyone alive, she has incredible nuance, especially for somebody with such a big voice. As she moved effortlessly if vigorously between blue-eyed soul, brassy cabaret tones, saloon jazz and majestic art-rock, her mic technique wa a dead giveaway, from a close whisper to a distant wail. She may look like a typical sophomore on her way to, say, a Juilliard rehearsal room, but she’s been doing this a long time, starting as a pre-teen singing sensation in her native Queens. And her parents were cool, and encouraged her, and fifteen years down the line, she’s one of the most magnetic singers in town and a strong pianist as well. That song is the title track to her fantastic latest ep Holdin’ My Heart, streaming at her Bandcamp page. She’s probably doing that number along with plenty of others from a pretty deep catalog at LIC Bar on Nov 30 at 7 PM, where she’s opening for a drummer who used to play for Billy Joel and whose leadfoot thump has been sampled on a million hip-hop joints over the years.

“Look me in the eye, all I see is black,” was Boes’ opening line in the luridly desperate Strangers, which she took all the way up to an unexpectedly amusing trick ending. “Every time I fall in love, I fall hard,” she admitted as she opened The One, the ep’s darkly chromatic, suspensefully pulsing first track, part noir cabaret, part oldschool 60s soul, part towering Alan Parsons Project symphonic rock ballad.

Yet as much as she loves minor keys – there’s Chopin, and Tschaikovsky, and Rachmaninoff lurking behind her fingers – and as much raw pain as there is in her tales of abandonment and loss, she doesn’t come across as a sad person at all. In between songs, she smiled and chatted with the crowd, unselfconscious and down to earth, hardly the diva you might expect after hearing her reach for the rafters and hold on for dear life. And that sense of humor came across in a couple of coy soul ballads that wouldn’t have been out of place in, say, the Bettye Swan songbook. Fun fact: onstage, Boes always rocks a hat. Has she ever been seen without one? Go to the show in Queens and find out.

Boes is typical of the acts that impresario Lara Ewen – a first-rate songstress herself – books for the free Friday evening series at the Folk Art Museum, arguably Manhattan’s best remaining listening room. The next show there is Dec 2 starting at 5:30 PM with the rousingly rustic guy-girl harmonies of the Piedmont Bluz duo.

Free Music Fridays at the American Folk Art Museum: Manhattan’s Most Vital Americana Roots Music Scene

“When you think about it, how many real listening rooms are left in New York?” Lara Ewen, folk noir singer and impresario of the pretty-much-weekly Free Music Fridays series at the American Folk Art Museum, mused the other night. She’s on to something. Outside of the jazz and classical worlds, it’s hard to find a space in Manhattan that caters to an audience for less loudly amplified or acoustic sounds like the Americana roots music, and its descendents, that her series promotes.

Sure, people come to listen at Barbes, and the Jalopy, and the Owl, and sometimes Pete’s Candy Store when there isn’t a din at the bar. But all those places are in Brooklyn. In Manhattan, there’s hardly anything left. Rockwood Music Hall is a Jersey tourist trap, the Bleecker Street dives have been a joke since the 60s ended, and Sidewalk, while noticeably improved lately, still draws heavily on the autistic types who play the open mic there. And autistic people aren’t known for their social graces.

Which leaves Free Music Fridays. The series went on hiatus for a few weeks to accommodate an exhibition, then returned with a vengeance in early July with a simmeringly low-key performance by darkly lyrical former Madder Rose frontwoman Mary Lorson, who played an intimate, acoustic duo set with percussionist John Sharples. Since then, the series has been on a roll, requiring extra rows of seats since the audience continues to grow.

The highlight of last week’s installment was the opening set by aphoristic newschool country blues songwriter Nathan Xander, in a stark duo performance with a similarly purposeful fiddler. Since the series returned, other than Lorson, the most dynamic, exciting show was an impressively eclectic, smartly lyrical, historically-informed couple of sets by a roughly five-piece subset of mighty acoustic Americana powerhouse M Shanghai String Band. Ewen called them one of New York’s best bands, and once again she was on the money.

Frontman Austin Hughes distinguished himself with his clever wordplay, poignant and relevant historical references and plaintive harmonies, sung by everyone in this edition of the band (which can number more than ten people onstage). This version also featured Philippa Thompson on – take a deep breath – fiddle, bass, lead vocals, singing saw, washboard and spoons – plus Glendon Jones on mandolin, Patty Hughes on bass and a couple of family members taking an animated cameo or two on harmony vocals.

One of the band’s biggest audience hits, the broodingly lilting Sea Monster, turned out to be a contemplation of how instant internet access to information can stifle the imagination. At a distance at least, it’s more fun to ponder the existence of apocryphal creatures than to dismiss them. The similarly uneasy, harmony-driven Two Thousand Pennies resonated even more as an anthem for the New Depression. Aptly, toward the end of their second set, the band played Vivian Girls, an even moodier look at the inner life of disturbed outsider artist Henry Darger, whose work was first featured in a career retrospective at this museum.

M Shanghai String Band’s next show is back at their home base, the Jalopy on September 3 at 9 PM; cover is $10.. And the highlight of this Friday’s free music, this August 19 at around 6:30 PM at the museum, is Moji Abiola, whose eclectic sound blends oldschool soul into their paisley underground psychedelia.

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.

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.

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.