New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: mary lee kortes

Ferociously Funny, Politically-Fueled Americana Rock From Esquela

In a crowded pack of Americana bands, Esquela distinguish themselves with their ferocious, often hilarious, fearlessly political lyrics and high-voltage guy/girl vocals. With New York under a draconian lockdown last summer and most studios officially shuttered, the group joined the legions of artists making albums over the web to record their latest one, A Sign From God, streaming at Bandcamp. Credit producer and multi-instrumentalist Eric “Roscoe” Ambel for piecing together individual tracks culled from very diverse sonic environments and somehow finding a way to make them sound like a cohesive group effort.

The opening number, Not in My Backyard sets the stage for the rest of the record. “Hydrofracking is a swear word, nuclear power is for the birds, guess we better burn some trees,” John “Chico” Finn and Becca Frame cynically observe over Ambel’s growling guitars and the steady four-on-the-floor drive from bassist Keith Christopher and drummer Mike Ricciardi.

Frame brings the lights down in Oradura, a grim account of the Nazi massacre of the French village of Oradour Sur Glane in 1944. With the smoldering intertwine of Brian Shafer and Matt Woodin’s guitars, it could be the Walkabouts: it’s the best song on the album.

With a lickety-split Shafer guitar solo and a ridiculously funny bridge, Rest of My Life offers two…um…individual perceptions of a one-night stand. Woodin and Shafer take turns with tantalizingly twangy solos in Give Ups, about a woman with distinctive taste in outerwear. Frame returns to the mic as the band get serious again, with 1861: in the current era of unprecedented divide-and-conquer, this Civil War parable really packs a wallop.

Ambel adds honkytonk-flavored lapsteel in Three Finger Joe, a cynical tale of casual redneck bigotry. Set to a snarling mix of Ambel guitar multitracks, First World Problems might the funniest song ever written about American exceptionalism. Together Finn and Frame chronicle the kind of devastating issues we have to cope with every day: our favorite teams finish last, the wifi acts up, we lose our phones, and country radio sucks. The joke at the end is way too good to spoil.

Rob Arthur guests on organ in What’s Your Problem, a snide account of white entitlement that brings to mind a big Dream Syndicate hit, right down to the opening Ambel guitar riff. Finn chronicles pioneer days in upstate New York over Ambel’s keening slide guitar in Two Stones. The band close the album with Wait For Me, Frame’s gorgeously chiming, haunting setting of a World War II poem by Russian soldier Konstantin Simonov. It’s been a slow year for rock records; count this as one of the best of the bunch so far.

The 30 Best NYC Concerts of 2019

Enormous triage was required to trim this down to a manageable number. Despite a desperate climate where practically every corner property in this city is being removed from the stock of housing and commercial space and handed over to speculators, thousands of stubborn musicians and patrons of the arts won’t leave this sinking ship.

Time to celebrate that tenacity! Consider this an informed survey rather than a definitive statement:  this is the most personal of all the year-end lists here. It’s impossible to count the number of shows over the past several years where this blog was in the house even though most New Yorkers couldn’t get there (or, more likely, couldn’t get home from there) because of the subway melting down at night and on the weekend. The reverse is just as true. You want FOMO? Move to Brooklyn.

The best show of 2019 was Rose Thomas Bannister‘s wedding, at Union Pool in late September, where the Great Plains gothic songstress sang her heart out on a killer festival bill which also included her polymath guitarist husband Bob Bannister, her bagpipe wizard dad Tom Campbell jamming with the mesmerizingly trippy 75 Dollar Bill, plus sets by psychedelic indie rockers PG Six and delirious Afrobeat crew Super Yamba. For anyone who might consider it pretentious to pick a private event as the year’s best concert…it wasn’t really private. Anybody who was at the bar, or just randomly walking by, could have come in and enjoyed the music – and as the night went on, a lot of people did.

Here’s the rest of the year, in chronological order:

House of Echo at Nublu 151, 1/15/19
French keyboardist Enzo Carniel’s hauntingly improvisational quartet built Lynchian ambience throughout a smoky, hypnotic series of cinematic tableaux.

Golden Fest, 1/18-19/19
Night one of the annual blockbuster South Park Slope festival of Balkan and Balkan-adjacent music was a delirious dance party with brass band Zlatne Uste, their smaller spinoff Kavala, pontic lyra player Dimitrios Stefanides and otherworldly Turkish oboe band Zurli Drustvo. Night two went for about nine hours with about a hundred bands. Some highights: chanteuse Eva Salina fronting the Balkan Doors, Choban Elektrik: Amir Vahab‘s plaintive Iranian ballads; Raya Brass Band‘s chandelier-shaking intensity; Souren Baronian‘s deep, soulful Near Eastern jazz; clarinetist Michael Winograd‘s lavish klezmer orchestra; and thunderous Rhode Island street band What Cheer Brigade closing the festivities

Ethel at the Jewish Museum, 2/28/19
It’s shocking that it took twenty years before there was ever a world premiere performance of the complete, witheringly intense Julia Wolfe string quartet cycle…and it’s a good thing these champions of 21st century music took the job

Hearing Things at Barbes, 3/1/19
Slinky, allusively sinister, Balkan and Doors-tinged organ-and-sax grooves with a surf beat: the crowd danced hard at this wild post-happy hour gig

Josh Sinton’s Krasa at Issue Project Room, 3/15/19
Seated with his back to the audience, pushing his contrabass clarinet to its extreme limits through a huge pedalboard, Sinton’s solo show was one of the most deliciously assaultive sets of the year, over and out in less than 40 minutes.

Girls on Grass and the Sadies at Union Pool, 4/2/19
Luscious clang and twang, some Nashville gothic and surf and a little punkgrass from the legendary, jangly psychedelic band who got their start in the 90s, with a similarly brilliant, psychedelic act they highly influenced opening the night

The Juilliard Trombone Choir at the Greene Space, 4/3/19
NY Philharmonic principal trombonist Joseph Alessi‘s explosive, wickedly tight band of future classical stars ripped and pulsed through irresistibly imaginative, sometimes amusing arrangements of works from Gabrieli to Beethoven to Warlock

Mary Lee’s Corvette at the Mercury, 4/13/19
With former Pogue Cait O’Riordan bopping and slinking around on bass, Mary Lee Kortes’ rivetingly lyrical, multistylistically jangly band brought equal parts ferocity and fun

The Coffin Daggers at Otto’s in the wee hours of 5/5/19
The undisputed kings of horror surf were as loud as ever and maybe even more murkily, assaultively psychedelic

Lee Narae at Lincoln Center, 5/9/19
Backed by a terse psychedelic folk band, the individualistic pansori singer unveiled a withering, provocatively feminist remake of the ancient Korean epic Byeongangsoe-ga, told from the long-suffering bride’s point of view

Greek Judas at Niagara, 5/9/19
A great night – this is the first time there have ever been two separate shows from a single evening on this list. Guitarists Wade Ripka and Adam Good sparred through one sinister chromatic Greek rembetiko metal hash-smoking anthem after another, over the supple groove of bassist Nick Cudahy and drummer Chris Stromquist

Kayhan Kalhor and Kiya Tabassian at CUNY’s Elebash Hall, 5/10/19
Kalhor is the renowed, intense master of the Iranian kamancheh fiddle; this evening was a very rare performance on setar lute, building serpentine, hauntingly relevant epics with his protege

Loreto Aramendi at Central Synagogue, 5/14/19
In a rare US appearance, the pioneering Spanish organist played wickedly imaginative arrangements of Rachmaninoff’s iconic C# Minor Prelude, Saint-Saens’ Halloween classic Danse Macabre and pieces by Buxtehude, Liszt and Ligeti

Bobtown at Rockwood Music Hall, 6/9/19
The iconic folk noir harmony band cheerily harmonized, slunk and bounded through a mix of somewhat less creepy material than usual, with lots of tunes from their new album Chasing the Sun, plus a brooding cameo from cellist Serena Jost

The New York Philharmonic in Prospect Park, 6/14/19
In his Brooklyn debut, maestro Jaap Van Zweden led this country’s flagship orchestra through a stunningly vivid, resolutely vindictive performance of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2

Chicha Libre at Barbes, 6/26/19
The psychedelic cumbia legends reunited and warmed up for a South American tour with a couple of shows on their home turf. This was the second night, the one this blog didn’t review, and it was even better than the first, beginning with the gleefully uneasy Papageno Electrico and closing after midnight with the group’s creepy electric bolero version of Satie’s Gnossienne No. 1

Nashaz and Gato Loco at Barbes, 7/5/19
Oudist Brian Prunka’s undulating Middle Eastern band jammed out both otherworldly Egyptian classics as well as similarly edgy, entrancing originals; afterward, multi-saxophonist Stefan Zeniuk’s mighty noir mambo band burned through an even more towering, angst-fueled set

Hannah vs. the Many and the Manimals at the Nest, 7/11/19
The most entertaining show of the year began with charismatic frontwoman Hannah Fairchild’s withering, torrentially lyrical noir punk band and ended with catchy powerposters the Manimals’ incendiary bandleader Haley Bowery skidding to the edge of the stage on her knees, seemingly covered with blood. Costumes and a quasi-satanic ritual were also involved.

Michael Winograd at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, 7/28/19
The supersonic klezmer clarinetist and composer defied the heat, leading a similarly sizzling band through wildly cinematic originals from his new album Kosher Style

The Drive East Festival, 8/5-11/19
NYC’s annual celebration of traditional and cutting-edge Indian classical arts featured rapturous ragas from sitarist Hidayat Khan, hypnotic soundscapes by saxophonist Prasant Radhakrishnan, spellbinding violinists Trina Basu & Arun Ramamurthy’s Carnatic-inspired Nakshatra Quartet, and a sardonically riveting Metoo-themed dance performance by Rasika Kumar, festival creator Sahasra Sambamoorthi and Nadhi Thekkek, with a dynamic live score by Roopa Mahadevan

Looking at You at Here, 9/6/19
Kamala Sankaram and Rob Handel’s new opera, billed as a mashup of the Edward Snowden affair and Casablanca, is a satire of Silicon Valley technosupremacists falling for their own bullshit. It was as chillingly Orwellian as it was hilarious, with a subtly immersive live score .

Ben Holmes’ Naked Lore and Combo Lulo at Barbes, 9/14/19
The dynamic, resonant, klezmer and noir-inspired trumpeter, guitarist Brad Shepik and drummer Shane Shanahan built darkly chromatic mood pieces and more jaunty, acerbic tunes; it was a good setup for the organ-driven psychedelic cumbias, edgy Ethiopiques and trippy dub sounds afterward.

Wajde Ayub at Roulette, 9/28/19
The powerful Syrian baritone crooner – a protege of legendary Syrian tarab singer Sabah Fakhri – led a lavish, kinetic orchestra through a mix of harrowingly vivid, socially relevant anthems and ecstatic love ballads.

Nights one and two of the Momenta Festival, 10/15-16/19
To open their annual festival of underperformed and brand-new string quartet music at the Americas Society, the perennially relevant Momenta Quartet played a haunting Julian Carrillo microtonal piece, premiered a fierce, allusiveley political Alvin Singleton quartet as well as a more elegantly circling one by Roberto Sierra plus works by Ligeti and Mario Lavista.

The Takacs Quartet play the Bartok string quartet cycle at the 92nd St. Y, 10/18-20/19
A revelatory, slashingly energetic, insightful tour of some of the most harrowing, intense work for string quartet ever written

Big Lazy’s album release weekend at the American Can Co. building, 11/8-9/19
Bandleader and guitarist Steve Ulrich had lost his mom the night before the sold-out two-night stand started. He’d played Cole Porter’s I Love You to her that evening, and reprised the song on night one with his cinematic noir trio, bolstered by organist Marlysse Simmons, trumpeter Steven Bernstein and baritone saxophonist Peter Hess. Night two’s music was less mystical and pensive, more thrillingly, grittily menacing and macabre – when it wasn’t slinky and cynically playful.

Hamid Al-Saadi and Safaafir at Roulette, 11/23/19
The gritty, impassioned Iraqi crooner and this hemisphere’s only ensemble dedicated to classical Iraqi maqam music were tighter and more electric than they’d been at Lincoln Center in the spring, through a mix of metaphorically charged, socially relevant themes and more lively, traditional repertoire.

The Grasping Straws and Lorraine Leckie & Her Demons at the Mercury, 11/24/19
For anybody who might have missed seeing Patti Smith back in the 70s, or Jimi Hendrix in the 60s, this was a good substitute, the openers’ elegant, incisive lead guitarist Marcus Kitchen contrasting with the headliners’ feral, Hendrixian Hugh Pool

Karen Dahlstrom at Scratcher Bar, 12/8/19
The powerful, gospel-inspired singer and folk noir champion held the crowd rapt through brooding Old West narratives, wryly torchy blues, gorgeously plaintive laments and the fierce Metoo anthem No Man’s Land, the title track from her brilliant new album.

Three Edgy Songwriters Provide Respite From the Cold at City Vineyard

Last night a crowd braved the cold for the comfortable confines of City Vineyard off the West Side Highway downtown to listen raptly to three first-class, veteran tunesmiths. Mary Lee Kortes, frontwoman of Mary Lee’s Corvette, set the bar impossibly high for the rest of evening, opening the night with a rare trio version of the band alongside Rod Hohl on lead guitar and Jeremy Chatzky on upright bass.

Their set drew from throughout an astonishingly eclectic twenty-year career. They started with Out From Under It, a grittily swaying Laurel Canyon psych-pop tune. “What an amazing sight to sail the longest night and make it home somehow,” Kortes sang in a delivery that was part silk and part spun steel, victory snatched from the jaws of defeat, Chatzky nailing the slithery downward riff as the song peaked out on the final chorus.

Hohl played phantasmagorical swing beneath Kortes’ jaunty phrasing in The Music Got Me Here, from the band’s Songs of Beulah Rowley record, a concept album about a fictitious polymath songwriter from the early part of the past century. Then the trio shifted elegantly from straight-up jazz to moody blues in the slowly swaying ballad Will Anyone Know That I Was Here.

“Actually, songwriters do write songs not about themselves – it is shocking to some people,” Kortes mused, then led the group through a chilling, impassioned take of Why Don’t You Leave Him, a grim minor-key abused woman’s narrative that’s every bit as relevant in the age of Metoo as it was when the band released it in 1999 on the True Lovers of Adventure album.

Midway through the set, Kortes took a pause to read a couple of surreal excerpts from her new book Dreaming of Dylan: 115 Dreams About Bob, a frequently hilarious collection crowdsourced from around the world. She reprised that theme at the end of the set with a deviously funny new song, Dreaming of Him, referencing some of those dreams without ever naming who they’re about. She challenged the crowd to sing along with the impossibly high, arioso hook on the chorus: unsurprisingly, she was the only one who could hit those notes.

The rest of the set was just as entertaining. The towering anthem Someplace We Can’t See seemed to be more triumphant than the uneasy, practically elegaic album version. Kortes brought up guitarist Steven Butler to play Byrdsy jangle and jagged Beatlisms on a couple of tunes they’d written together: the gorgeous End of the Road and a long, psychedelic take of One More Sun, which turned out to be closer to Yo La Tengo than the Indian music the album version alludes to.

Butler validated his unimpeachable taste in co-writers, following with a set of mostly new material from his latest project with crooner and vintage Britrock crooner Ed Rogers, with Don Piper playing acoustic rhythm guitar. A fixture in the East Village for years, Rogers’ songs have often savagely chronicled the destruction of New York neighborhoods in an endless blitzkrieg of gentrification. Many of the numbers last night were his most withering and spot-on yet.

The best was Old Storefronts, a bitter, chilling account of what happens when people stop supporting independent businesses and get all their stuff online. Possibilities (as in, “No possibilities”) had a Stonesy cynicism. Joined by drummer and #1 Kinks fan Frank Lima on percussion and backing vocals, their closing number, Seven Hour Man, caustically asssessed how the gig economy has made the forty hour work week a pipe dream from the past.

The rest of the material was as eclectic as expected. The trio jangled through Diana Dors, a wistful shout-out to a legendary British actress who died young after a failed attempt to make it in Hollywood. Love Lock Bridge, a catchy, rainswept ballad set in Dublin, had a similar bittersweetness.

There’s another potentially amazing lineup at City Vineyard on Nov 19 at 7:30 PM with two great champions of oldtime acoustic blues, Jontavious Willis and Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton. Cover is $20.

Sleeping with Bob Dylan

Mary Lee Kortes has had many dreams about Bob Dylan. The funniest one involves the lute he was playing in a rehearsal for a Loser’s Lounge gig at Joe’s Pub.

Some things you just can’t make up.

Kortes has included that dream, and many others from a globally-sourced, vastly diverse crowd, in her irresistibly playful new book, Dreaming of Dylan: 115 Dreams About Bob. It’s available at or through your neighborhood bookstore, if one still exists, and also at the usual online spots.

Kortes may be known as one of the most brilliantly lyrical songwriters and powerful singers of the past couple of decades, but she’s also an entertaining prose writer. As a young Michigan kid straight out of college in New York, she took a dayjob as an editor in academic and scientific publishing. That helped her get her band Mary Lee’s Corvette off the ground.

This blog’s precedessor e-zine (blogs didn’t exist in 2002) picked Mary Lee’s Corvette’s live recording of Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks as the #1 album of that year, and her version of Idiot Wind as the #1 song. Her immersion in Dylan’s work – plus the fact that he’s been such a frequent visitor in her dreams – makes her the obvious candidate to pull this book together.

There’s more than a little irony in that Dylan – the consummate wordsmith – tends to be very laconic throughout almost all of his otherworldly appearances here. A handful of them are obviously wish dreams, but most of them are just randomly hilarious. Dylan wears many hats – he’s a cop, President of the United States, Presidential candidate, prom date, boating instructor, airline pilot, guitar store customer, diehard baseball fan, and in a couple of dreams, a woman. Jim Morrison, Keith Richards, Charles Bukowski, Tom Petty, rightwing extremist George Will, several Dylan sidemen and a talking cow, among others, make cameo appearances.

The funniest dream of all might be the one from drummer Will Rigby, who shows up at a festival to play his first-ever show as a member of Dylan’s band. But the people in charge are incompetent. Rigby doesn’t specify exactly how, but it’s the gig from hell: the door guy is probably AWOL, the sound guy’s already drunk, the promoter’s unreachable, the outdoor tent where they’re playing is a wreck, and there’s not much of a crowd. So Dylan shows up, takes a quick look around, says, “I’m not playing this awful place,” and leaves. Rigby’s regret, of course, is that this wretched gig was his one chance to get to play with Dylan.

Contributor Patti Smith also includes one of her dreams, as well as the lyrics it inspired. Among the many wryly clever illustrations are photos from Mitch Blank’s vast collection of Dylan memorabilia. This book is a rabbit hole waiting for you to take the plunge: it’s impossible to resist reading in a single sitting.

What brings the book full circle is that one of Kortes’ Dylan dreams actually came true. In the dream, he wordlessly told her he liked her work; over a decade later, he put one of the songs from her Blood on the Tracks album on the front page of his website and kept it there for months. And Mary Lee’s Corvette also got to open for him at Madison Square Garden.

Transcendent Lyrical and Vocal Power From Mary Lee’s Corvette at the Mercury

Saturday night at the Mercury, Mary Lee’s Corvette put on a clinic in eclectic tunesmithing, smartly conversational interplay, brilliant lyricism and spine-tlngling vocals. There literally isn’t a style that frontwoman/guitarist Mary Lee Kortes can’t write in: powerpop, Americana, glam rock, cabaret, classical, jazz, and psychedelia, to name a few. She did a lot of that, and held the crowd spellbound with that crystalline voice, which can leap two octaves or more, effortlessly. She’s been regarded as arguably the best singer in New York for a long time (noir haunter Karla Rose and Indian belter Roopa Mahadevan are good points of comparison).

Throughout a tantalizing forty-five minute set, Kortes validated everything good that’s ever been said about her. The band opened with the gritty new wave-flavored kiss-off anthem Need for Religion (as in, “Maybe it was just my need for religion that made me believe in you,” and it gets meaner from there). New lead guitarist Jack Morer played purposeful, incisiive fills on his Strat while new bassist Cait O’Riordan – founding member of the Pogues – shifted from nimble, dancing lines to snarling upward runs, and swung hard. Not only does she totally get Kortes’ songwriting – which some players can’t – but she also makes a good visual foil, two tall blondes bopping onstage and intertwining riffs.

Smartly, Kortes paired the warily triumphant garage-psych anthem Out From Under It with Learn  From What I Dream, with its edgy chromatic riffage and 60s Laurel Canyon psych-folk ambience. Through the night, the dream world was a frequent reference point, considering that Kortes is also a compelling prose writer and editor, with a new book, Dreaming of Dylan: 115 Dreams About Bob just out. Since Kortes has had more than a few (including a touching “don’t quit writing songs, no matter what” dream, as she explained to the crowd), it makes sense that she’d pull a collection like that together.

The best song of the night might have been Well by the Water, a corrosively metaphorical, lilting amthem that works on the innumerable, Elvis Costello-esque levels that Kortes loves so much, as apt a portrait of tightlipped Midwestern dysfunction as a history of human civilization itself. After that, the band stretched out in a bitingly bluesy take of Dylan’s Meet Me in the Morning – which Mary Lee’s Corvette famously recorded on their live cover of Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks album.

O’Riordan approached the slow, lingering bittersweet mini-epic Portland Michigan – a not-so-fond childhood reminiscence – with finesse but also as a search for impactful harmony, something few bass players do. They closed with a new song, a series of dreamscapes over a pulsing, Stonesy vamp – which Kortes used as a launching pad for her most spellbinding leaps of the night. Good to see this band back at a venue where they’ve put on similarly transcendent shows over the years.

Mary Lee’s Corvette Revisit Their Iconic Recording of Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks at Joe’s Pub

There’s considerable irony in that as brilliant as Mary Lee’s Corvette’s original songs are, the band are best known for a cover album that they didn’t even plan on releasing.

Seventeen years ago, they were a ubiquitous presence in what was then a thriving Lower East Side rock scene. One of the few remaining venues from that time, Arlene’s, had a series of “classic album” cover nights. Most of them were pretty cheesy and didn’t draw very high-quality talent, further reinforcing the assumption that the best musicians all want to play their own material.

One of those nights featured a local venue owner doing a version of an album by the Band. The other album on the bill that night was Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, which Mary Lee’s Corvette played all the way through, after only two rehearsals.

It was one of the most transcendent shows ever witnessed by anyone from this blog (or its more primitive predecessor – in the fall of 2001, blogs as we know them today didn’t exist). That e-zine rated Mary Lee’s Corvette’s venomous version of Idiot Wind as the best song of the year. A few months later, the band officially released the live recording, which by then had been circulating among collectors who were in awe of frontwoman Mary Lee Kortes’ vocals and the band’s similarly electrifying performance.

In the years since, Mary Lee’s Corvette have reprised that concert a few times. They’re revisiting it this Thursday night, Jan 24 at 7 PM at Joe’s Pub, another of the few neighborhood venues left that still have music. General admission is $18. If you’re going, you should get there early because it might sell out.

If you give the record a spin at youtube, you’ll notice how the drums suddenly get much louder when the band get to Meet Me in the Morning. That’s because somebody forgot to push a button and the original recording didn’t catch the song. The version on the album is from drummer Diego Voglino’s own recorder, positioned much closer to his kit; consequently, guitarist Andy York’s searing slide guitar solo is way back in the mix.

The rest of the record is what you would expect from a topnotch Americana rock unit – this incarnation of the band also featured Brad Albetta on bass and Andy Burton on organ – fronted by one of the most amazingly versatile singers on the planet. Kortes’ own material spans from folk-rock to jazz, but she also has a background in classical music. She founded the UN Voices choir, and has recorded with Placido Domingo.

And if you’re lucky, she’ll break out some of her own material at the show (she didn’t do that at the Arlene’s gig). Watching her play an extremely rare solo acoustic show at Pete’s late last summer was a revelation. Kortes’ tensile wail is every bit as formidable as it was almost twenty years ago; if anything, she’s even more nuanced a singer than she was then. She mixed up some new material – a couple of stark folk noir numbers, one of them an especially allusive one that could have been a murder ballad – along with more anthemic favorites from years past.

As usual, she got a lot of laughs with More Stupider, a radio pop parody she wrote in response to someone telling her that her songs were too smart for mass consumption. The lyrics to Sweeter Than True are as opaque as the swaying, bittersweet melody is catchy: Kortes confided that she’s still trying to figure out exactly what that one’s about. And she ran through a couple of jaunty swing-flavored tunes from her Beulah Rowley Songbook concept album, told from the point of view of a mysterious, obscure 1930s songwriting polymath. Even if she doesn’t get to the originals at the Joe’s Pub gig, it’s a rare chance to revisit a fleetingly magical time and place that most people in New York today never got to witness.

Eric Ambel Brings His Expert, Purist Tunesmithing and Sizzling Lead Guitar Back to Brooklyn

If a clinic in spine-tingling, dynamic. expert lead guitar is your thing, you could spend hundreds of dollars and make Ticketbastard rich and go see Richard Thompson at a place like City Winery. Or you could go see Eric Ambel and his band for free this Saturday night at 9 upstairs at Hill Country Brooklyn. The Brooklyn branch of the bbq franchise is 180 degrees the opposite of the Manhattan location. The staff are friendly and seem happy to be there, the crowd is local and multicultural, and while they don’t nceessarily come to listen, a lot of them do. That way, the band doesn’t have to try to drown out the touristy din like they do in Manhattan. And the Brooklyn branch’s sound system is better, too.

Ambel has been on tour this summer with his band – Brett Bass on bass, Phil Cimino on drums and Spanking Charlene‘s Mo Goldner on second guitar – so they should be stoked to be back on their home turf. Ambel’s most recent New York show was here on this same stage at the end of June, and it was amazing, one of the year’s best. Switching between his custom Telecaster and Les Paul, “Roscoe” delivered searing, string-bending intensity, judicious jangle and clang, choogling four-on-the-floor grooves, a couple of stomping detours toward punk rock, even some plaintive wee-hour C&W. All that in two sets, about two hours of music where the band finally ran out of rehearsed material and blasted through a couple of old R&B covers to close the night.

There were so many high-voltage moments, it’s impossible to separate one from the rest. The band opened the second set with a searing take of Song for the Walls, the first track on Ambel’s second solo album, Loud & Lonesome, part psychedelic Beatles, part acidic Kevin Salem rock. Lou Whitney’s defiant Thirty Days in the Workhouse (“If I’d been a black man, they’d have given me thirty years”) resonated especially with this audience. There was roadhouse rock like Scott Kempner’s Here Come My Love. country-flavored material like Jimbo Mathus’ Let’s Play with Fire, and a couple of snarling, Ramones-influenced numbers, the best of them being the snide Hey Mr. DJ. Introducing that one, Ambel told a hilarious story about the first time he saw the Ramones, as an eighteen-year-old party animal in Illinois. That story’s too good to give away here.

Spanking Charlene frontwoman Charlene McPherson came up to duet on a swampy take of Have Mercy, which she co-wrote with Ambel. Mary Lee Kortes – Ambel’s wife and an equally skilled tunesmith, whose long-awaited forthcoming full-length album The Songs of Beulah Rowley is awe-inspiring – lent her crystalline voice to a couple of numbers too. The night’s longest and most darkly simmering epic, Buyback Blues – a bittersweet look back at Ambel’s well-loved and dearly missed East Village venue, Lakeside Lounge – was as good as anything Neil Young & Crazy Horse could come up with. If memory serves right, the band ran through just about everything from Ambel’s latest solo album, also titled Lakeside.

Later in the second set Ambel entertained the crowd with his funniest song, I Love You Baby – if you don’t know it, the lyrics are also too funny to give away here. The show this Saturday night should be something like this, who knows, maybe even better. If we get lucky they’ll play Garbagehead, the ultimate Lakeside Lounge Saturday night party anthem.

A Look Back at Last Year’s Vocal Summit With Amanda Thorpe and Her Siren Friends

More about that Amanda Thorpe show coming up on June 13 at 8 PM at Hifi Bar. She’s playing in the intimate space in the back, where the Britfolk and chamber pop songwriter – the closest thing to Linda Thompson that this generation has produced – will be joined by guitarists Don Piper and her longtime Bedsit Poets bandmate Edward Rogers.

Mary Lee Kortes was one of three other women who joined Thorpe late last year onstage at the Treehouse at 2A for a summit meeting of four of the most haunting voices in all of rock. It was one of the half-dozen most spellbinding shows of the year: vocally speaking, no other performance all year came close. The quartet of Thorpe, Kortes, Lianne Smith and Debby Schwartz each played guitar, singing in the round, trading songs, joining voices as duos and trios and once or twice in four-part harmony: pure, unaffected, spine-tingling intensity.

Thorpe has an ambered delivery that can be either coyly fun or woundedly resigned in the low registers, but when she cuts loose and soars way up, that’s when the firepower really kicks in. Likewise, Smith channels hushed nunace as much as poignancy, has a spun-steel upper register and has never written better than she’s doing now. With her metalcutter crystalline tone and ability to effortlessly leap octaves, Kortes is probably one of the half-dozen best singers in the world, never mind the rock world. Schwartz, the former Aquanettas frontwoman, might have the most distinctive voice of all four singers,  both plaintive and atmospheric with a tinge of grit. She and Smith – who also draws on rockabilly, Americana and psychedelia – share an indie rock background. Kortes draws on all sorts of Americana, and like Thorpe is equally adept at jazz.

Smith had her Strat with the reverb turned up as she usually does. A typically allusive new number parsed the understated ache and longing from eyes that are “bright, bright, bright” in circumstances that are hardly “right, right, right” – chilling, especially in contrast to the power she unleashed on the chorus. A spare, skeletal, southern soul-tinged new song gave her a platform for the kind of simmering vengeance that Dusty Springfield would have killed for.

Schwartz aired out the sardonic, understatedly brooding Dreaming New York City in the Middle of LA and also the evening’s high point among many, a viscerally  spine-tinglingtake of the otherwise enigmatic, minor-key anthem Hills of Violent Green. Kortes’s high points were the wickedly catchy, darkly chromatic, soaring Vegas noir-tinged Learn from What I Dream and the jaunty, uneasily defiant oldtimey swing tune Big Times, along with a swinging, embittered, coiled-cobra new song that might have been the evening’s single best number.

Joining voices with Treehouse impresario and guitar monster Tom Clark, Thorpe elevated a sad Everly Brothers song far above early 60s folk-revival stuff, to the level of something from the Skooshny catalog, maybe. She channeled the most nuance of anyone, especially in a handful of shadowy, noir-tinged reinventions of Great American Songbook jazz-pop from the Yip Harburg catalog, which she memorably recorded in 2014. A longtime staple of the Lower East Side scene back when it was about art far more than commerce, she rarely makes it back to town these days: if you missed her the first time around, now’s your chance not to miss out again.

A Vivid, Elegant New Album and a Murray Hill Show from Singer Heather Nova

Singer Heather Nova may have been throwing fire at the sun since the 90s, but she’s undiminished as a songwriter. Her voice has taken on a bit more of a wintry tinge than in her heyday, when she was cranking out one European hit after another, but she still hits the high notes with an enigmatic intensity, from a whisper to a wail. Her latest album, The Way It Feels, is streaming at Spotify. She’s got a relatively rare New York show coming up on April 6 at 7:30 PM at the Cutting Room; $22.50 advance tix are available at their ticket window.

The album opens with the angst-driven Treehouse, an ocean of atmospheric guitars and strings moving in and out like the tide over spare fingerpicked lines, gracefully rising to towering art-rock, part Aussie legends the Church, part Nicole Atkins. The shuffling Sea Glass, with its insistent rhyme scheme and pensive oceanside metaphors, brings to mind Mary Lee Kortes at her poppiest.

“Every day is like Pompeii,” Nova muses as The Archaeologist opens, a stark throwback to Nova’s 90s adventures in trip-hop. Girl on the Mountain layers a moody Britfolk verse and one of Nova’s signature, breathtaking, surprise choruses over a similar groove that rises to an icy majesty. Lie Down in the Bed You’ve Made isn’t the kiss-off anthem you might expect: it’s a seduction ballad, like a more country Aimee Mann.

With its catchy four-chord hook and artful piano/vibraphone chamber-pop arrangement, the woundedly resigned On My Radar is a more warmly organic throwback to Nova’s 90s work. Her breathy vocals gives Sleeping Dogs a disarming intimacy against a broodingly artsy Britfolk backdrop. The psychedelic pop ballad Sea Change morphs cleverly in and out of a 6/8 rhythm, awash in swirly keyboards and spare, glittering guitars. Nova follows that with the album’s most ethereal cut, This Humanness, weighing emotional baggage and the inevitable passage of time.

Over an intricate web of acoustic guitars and cello, I’m Air is Nova at her inscrutably counterintuitive best, moving in an unexpectedly triumphant, symphonic direction, an update on an old Moody Blues theme. With its archetypal metaphors, Women’s Hands tackles heavy themes like societally-inflicted self-hatred and insecurity. The album winds up with the oldtimey-tinged ukulele waltz Moon River Days. Good to see someone who quietly and methodically built one of the most consistently catchy catalogs of the past twenty years or so still at it and still going strong.

The Best New York Concerts of 2015

On one hand, pulling this page together is always a lot of fun – and there could be a late addition or two, since the year’s not over yet. Of all the year-end lists here, including the Best Songs of 2015 and Best Albums of 2015, this is the most individualistic – everybody’s got their own – and reflective of the various scenes in this blog’s endangered but still vital hometown.

On the other hand, whittling this page down to a manageable number always hurts a little. With apologies to everyone who didn’t make the cut, for reasons of space or otherwise – seriously, nobody’s got the time to sift through the hundred or so concerts that realistically deserve to be on this page – this list feels bare-bones, even with a grand total of 28 shows.

In terms of epic sweep, intensity and gravitas, the year’s best concert was by Iran’s Dastan Ensemble in September at Roulette. This performance marked the New York debut of intense young singer Mahdieh Mohammadkhani, who aired out her powerful voice in a series of original suites on themes of gender equality by members of the ensemble, along with some dusky, austere traditional songs.

Since trying to rank the rest of these shows would be impossible, they’re listed as they happened:

Karla Rose and Mark Sinnis & 825 at the Treehouse at 2A, 2/15/15
The frontwoman of noir rockers Karla Rose & the Thorns in a chillingly intimate duo performance with her Tickled Pinks bandmate Stephanie Layton, followed by the Nashville gothic crooner and his massive oldschool honkytonk band.

Molly Ruth and Lorraine Leckie at the Mercury, 3/12/15
A savage, careening set by the angst-fueled punk-blues siren and her new band, followed by the Canadian gothic songstress and her volcanic group with newly elected Blues Hall of Fame guitarist Hugh Pool.

Lazy Lions and Regular Einstein at Rock Shop, 3/20/15
A feast of lyrical double entendres, edgy new wave and punk-inspired tunesmithing. Jim Allen’s band were playing their first gig since 2008 and picked up like they never stopped; Paula Carino’s recently resurrected original band from the 90s were just as unstoppable.

The Shootout Band and a nameless if good pickup band led by John Sharples at the Mercury, 3/22/15
Cover bands get very little space here for reasons that should be obvious, but the Shootout Band devote themselves to doing a scary-good replication of Richard & Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights, Erica Smith shattering in her role as Linda Thompson and Bubble’s Dave Foster doing a spot-on-Richard. Afterward, multi-instrumentalist John Sharples led a similarly talented bunch song by song through Graham Parker’s cult favorite Squeezing Out Sparks album

Ensemble Hilka, Black Sea Hotel and the Ukrainian Village Voices at the Ukrainian Museum, 4/25/15
In their first performance in over three years (see Lazy Lions above), the Ukrainian choral group ran through a rustic, otherworldly performance of ancient songs from the area around the Chernobyl nuclear disaster site. Innovative Bulgarian/Balkan trio Black Sea Hotel and then the esteemed East Village community singers were no less otherworldly.

Mamie Minch and Laura Cantrell at Union Hall, 5/5/15
Resonator guitar badass and pan-Americana songstress Minch, and then Cantrell – the reigning queen of retro country sounds – each took their elegant rusticity to new places. Cantrell’s final stand of a monthlong residency here, a mighty electric show, was also awfully good.

Emel Mathlouthi and Niyaz at the World Financial Center, 5/8/15
Menacingly triumphant, politically-fueled Arabic art-rock from Mathlouthi and then mystically hypnotic, propulsive Iranian dancefloor grooves from Niyaz.

Rachelle Garniez and Carol Lipnik at Joe’s Pub, 5/14/15
Noir cabaret, stark Americana, soul/gospel and deviously funny between song repartee from multi-instrumentalist Garniez, followed by the magically surreal art-rock of Lipnik and her spine-tingling four-octave voice in a duo show with pianist Matt Kanelos.

Amy Rigby at Hifi Bar, 5/28/15
The final show of her monthlong residency was a trio set with her husband Wreckless Eric and bassist daughter Hazel, a richly lyrical, puristically tuneful, characteristically hilarious career retrospective

Erica Smith, Mary Spencer Knapp, Pete Cenedella, Monica Passin and the Tickled Pinks at the Treehouse at 2A, 5/31/15
Guitarist and purist tunesmith Passin, a.k.a L’il Mo, put this bill together as one of her frequent “Field of Stars” songwriters-in-the-round nights here. Smith was part of a lot of good shows this year because she’s so in demand; this was a rare chance to hear her dark Americana in a solo acoustic setting, joined by eclectic accordionist Knapp (of Toot Sweet), irrepressible American Ambulance frontman Cenedella, and a surprise appearance by coyly edgy swing harmony trio the Tickled Pinks (Karla Rose, Stephanie Layton and Kate Sland).

Jim Allen, Kendall Meade and Ward White at Hifi Bar, 6/15/15
Songsmith Allen doesn’t get around as much as a lot of the other acts here, but he really makes his gigs count: this was a glimpse of his aphoristic, lyrical Americana side. Meade, frontwoman of the late, great, catchy Mascott, held the crowd rapt with her voice and her hooks, then White went for deep literary menace with a little glamrock edge.

Glass House Ensemble and Muzsikas at NYU’s Skirball Center, 6/17/15
Trumpeter Frank London’s collaboration with an all-star Hungarian group, recreating rare pre-Holocaust Jewish sounds, followed by the more stripped-down, rustic but high-voltage Hungarian folk trio.

The Claudettes and Big Lazy at Barbes, 7/11/15
Fiery, sometimes hilariously theatrical barrelhouse piano soul followed by New York’s most menacing, state-of-the-art noir soundtrack band. Big Lazy have an ongoing monthly Barbes residency; their two sets this past May were particularly scary.

The Bright Smoke at the Mercury, 7/25/15
This was the show where intense frontwoman Mia Wilson’s blues-inspired psychedelic art-rock band made the quantum leap and earned comparisons to Joy Division.

Robin Aigner & Parlour Game at Barbes, 8/8/15
The torchy, wickedly lyrical oldtimey/Americana songstress at the top of her captivating game with a trio including poignant, powerful violinist/pianist Rima Fand.

Ember Schrag, Alec K Redfearn & the Eyesores and Escape by Ostrich at Trans-Pecos, 8/23/15
The fearsomely talented Schrag did double duty at this show, first playing her own murderously lyrical, Shakespeare-influenced art-rock with her own band, then switching from guitar to organ in Redfearn’s equally murderous Balkan psychedelic group. Jangly no wave jamband Escape by Ostrich took the evening into the wee hours.

Sweet Soubrette and Kotorino at Joe’s Pub, 9/2/15
This time it was menacing chanteuse Ellia Bisker who did double duty, first fronting her richly horn-driven noir soul band, then adding her voice to the noir latin art-rock of Kotorino.

The Shannon Baker/Erica Seguine Jazz Orchestra at Shrine, 9/7/15
Lots of good jazz shows this past year, none more unpredictably fascinating and lushly gorgeous than the epic performance by this unique, shapeshifting large ensemble uptown.

Kelley Swindall at LIC Bar, 9/16/15
The noir Americana songwriter and murder ballad purveyor usually leads a band; this solo gig was a rare chance to get up close and personal with her creepily philosophical southern gothic narratives

Charming Disaster at Pete’s Candy Store, 9/30/15
Speaking of twisted narratives, this multi-instrumentalist murder ballad/noir song project by Bisker and Morris (look up three notches) never sounded more menacing – and epically inspired – than they did here.

Jenifer Jackson at a house concert on the Upper West Side, 10/1/15
A long-awaited return home by the now Austin-based Americana/jazz/psychedelic songwriter, in a rare trio show with amazingly virtuosic multi-instrumentalist Kullen Fuchs and violinist Claudia Chopek

Liz Tormes and Linda Draper at the American Folk Art Museum, 10/23/15
A rare solo acoustic dark Americana twinbill by two of the most potently, poignantly lyrical songsmiths in that shadowy demimonde.

LJ Murphy & the Accomplices and MacMcCarty & the Kidd Twist Band at Sidewalk, 11/6/15
Murphy has defined New York noir for a long time – and now he’s gone electric, with searing results. McCarty has more of a Celtic folk-rock edge and equally haunting, politically-fueled story-songs.

Karla Rose & the Thorns at the Mercury, 11/17/15
Enigmatic reverb guitar-fueled Twin Peaks torch songs, stampeding southwestern gothic bolero rock, ominously echoey psychedelia, venomous saloon blues and stiletto between-song repartee from another artist who made multiple appearances on this list because everybody wants her to sing with them.

The Sometime Boys at Freddy’s, 11/20/15
One of New York’s most individualistic, catchy, groove-driven bands ran through a sizzling set of haunting, gospel-inflected ballads, jaunty newgrass, acoustic funk and blue-flame guitar psychedelia

Amanda Thorpe, Mary Lee Kortes, Lianne Smith and Debby Schwartz at the Treehouse at 2A, 11/22/15
Impresario Tom Clark remarked that there might never have been so much talent onstage here as there was this particular evening, with noir Britfolk songwriter Thorpe, the soaring and savagely lyrical Kortes, the ever-darker and mesmerizing Smith and the powerful, dreampop/Americana-influenced Schwartz. For that matter, there have been few nights on any stage anywhere in this city with this much lyrical and vocal power, ever.

Like last year, the numbers here suggest many interesting things. Eighteen of these shows were in Manhattan, eight were in Brooklyn and two in Queens, which is open to multiple interpretations. More instructive is the fact that half of the twenty-eight 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, even more so than they did last year: an astonishing 39 of the 53 acts here were either women playing solo or fronting a group. That’s a trend. You’re going to see more of that here on the Best Albums of 2015 and Best Songs of 2015 pages at the end of this month.