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No New Abnormal

Tag: mary spencer knapp

A Ferocious, Funny. Surreal New Album and a LES Show by the Charismatic Mary Spencer Knapp and Toot Sweet

To call Mary Spencer Knapp a force of nature really doesn’t do her justice. She will drop you in your tracks. The self-described accordion shredder is also a brilliant pianist, with a purposeful, bluesy streak. She’s a strong lyricist, she’s funny and she’s a whirlwind onstage. On the mic, she can move from a vengeful wail to a purr to something surreal and outer-dimensional, sometimes within the span of a few seconds, and make it seem completely natural. And there isn’t a style of music she can’t write: she’s played everything from Dominican folk to noir cabaret to the fringes of the avant garde.

Likewise, her new album Disco Eclipse with her band Toot Sweet – streaming at Bandcamp, blends new wave rock with cabaret, oldschool disco, soul music and a little performance art. The core of the group also includes Doug Berns on bass, Tyler Kaneshiro on trumpet and synth,and Javier Ramos on drums. They’re playing the album release show on March 31 at 8 PM at the small room at the Rockwood.

The album’s catchy, sarcastically strutting first song, Civilians comes across as a mashup of cabaret, the B-52s and early Talking Heads. It starts with a talk with the “drug counselor” and ends with Knapp bemoaning that “My grandfather killed civilians, I’m just one of seven billion.” In between songs, there are several playful miniatures. The best, titled Toot Suite, a wistful stroll with a tasty, torrential accordion solo and an ending that ’s too good to give away.

The soul-infused Northern Boulevard is even catchier: it’s a shout-out to a Queens neighborhood that starts with a rush to pick up a nameless injured person and then a wistful look back at a time before social media distractions:

There was something about living, living in the moment
I could achieve when I was there
There was something about sensing the world was ending
To free me from my usual affairs
There was something about making a saint of a man
Finding purpose in a good old laugh
There was something about living, living in the moment
I could achieve when I was there

Knapp’s full-throated voice, accordion and nostalgia for Old New York all bring to mind another first-rate, eclectic accordion-wielding songwriter, Rachelle Garniez.

Rolling on the Floor is a twisted, sultry cabaret-funk-punk tune about various situations which involve the floor, and also rolling:

She’s a manicured cutie
Big cat eyes with a bootie
Says she gonna give you triple X tonight
You want something more bovine?
You’re gonna have to draw the line

After the surreal stream-of-consciousness uke tune Fault Line, Bloody Murder is a surreal blend of Sergeant Pepper Beatles, the English Beat and no wave, set to a disco groove. Don’t you go running to mommy because “She’s a maleficent director, she’s gonna strut you and then she’ll cut you.”

In Rainy Day, Knapp builds a bouncy, bleakly surrealistic daydrunk scenario, followed by a trippy dub miniature. “I’ll make you sick of me,” is her vengeful mantra in the hypnotically hammering Playground Politics – and it gets more allusively vengeful from there.

Sway could be Laurie Anderson at her most rocking, while Bzzzness alternates variations on a slit-eyed boudoir theme with big crescendos from Knapp’s assertive gospel piano. The album’s final cut is the apocalyptic Tread Softly Epilogue. As diversely dramatic as these songs can be, they only hint at the kind of slinky valkyrie fury Knapp can work up onstage.

Oh yeah – Knapp was also a cast member in that popular Broadway show based on War and Peace.

Edgy Southwestern Rock and Existentialist Anthems with Tom Shaner in Long Island City

“I see a parade of people coming down the road,” Tom Shaner sang, cool and low, as the band behind him jangled and clanged through a catchy series of minor chords over a slow, undulating beat at LIC Bar Wednesday night. “All of those people are more or less alone.”

That song, Lake 48, goes back to the late 90s, when Shaner was leading a richly dusky desert rock band called Industrial Tepee. It was slower and slinkier then; over the years, Shaner has tightened it up a bit. The procession in the song hasn’t changed: all of those people are slowly making their way down to a place “Where the great spirit waits,’ and it seems they’re pretty determined to get there because if they miss their exit, they might end up at Lake 47.

“The number doesn’t matter,” Shaner ad-libbed. “But we won’t get there together,” he added.

There was also a parade in the slowly swaying, distantly spaghetti western-flavored opening number, another Industrial Tepee tune, along with several other slightly less gloomy existential moments. “It’s the wrong kind of silence here, like everybody wants to disappear,” he intoned in Viva Las Nowhere, pianist Mary Spencer Knapp adding twisted tango glitter. She calls herself an accordion shredder, which is true, but here she was just as colorful, shifting effortlessly and intuitively through two-fisted chords and jaunty riffage that drew as much on stride piano and oldtime blues as they did cabaret and circus rock.

“There were more trees here,” Shaner recounted, explaining to the crowd that he’d envisioned the drum sound in New York City Is Paradise Number 2 – a place you either eat, or it eats you – to evoke the echo of something being hit in the woods, rather than amidst concrete and steel. He’d grown up in Queens hearing both sounds, the latter more and more frequently.

Not everything in the set was as ominous. Shaner has written a lot of funny, theatrical numbers about she-devils, and the latest one, Carol’s House of Cruelty was an especially lurid, over-the-top tale about the unlucky guys who don’t have the sense to stay out. He also led the band through a pulsing take of Groove Queen, a cynically anthemic mashup of 60s Laurel Canyon psychedelia and Tom Waits blues. The rest of the show was a little more subdued, a chance for his purposeful bassist, drummer and lead guitarist to add subtle hints of oldschool soul and a little C&W.

Beyond sheer songwriting prowess, Shaner is an anomaly in what’s left of the New York rock scene. He doesn’t tour a lot – LIC Bar is his home base, more or less – but he gets a lot of high-profile film and tv placements and puts out the occasional excellent album. Watch this space for upcoming shows. If smart tunesmithing is your thing, LIC Bar has been on a roll with a lot of that lately: Melissa Gordon, frontwoman of the brilliant, new wave-ish Melissa & the Mannequins has a Monday night 10 PM residency there this month, including tonight, Feb 18. Another songwriter who has a lot in common with Shaner, the southwestern gothic-influenced Miwa Gemini, opens at 9.

Rock n Roll Suicides of 2018, Live

The Man in the Long Black Coat is lost.

He’s never been on this Crown Heights block before. Then again, before the days of the Long Black Coat, there was no reason for anyone who didn’t live or work, or have friends or family on this block, to be here.

The address he’s looking for seems to be in an unmarked former commercial storefront on an otherwise mostly residential brownstone street. He moseys a couple of doors down to a gentrifier bar and peers in: no sign of anything out of the ordinary. Turning back, he spots a couple making their way into a darkened doorway. The Man in the Long Black Coat follows them: he’s psyched. He likes mysteries.

Another mystery immediately presents itsef when the friendly girl at the door greets him. See, if you’ve been following this oft-interrupted story here, you’ll remember that the Man in the Long Black Coat is having a problem with invisibility. People have been bumping into him, and he’s had several near-misses with Ubers blasting through intersections. It’s not that the Ubers are even running the light like they always do: it’s that they clearly don’t see him.

And it’s not that being invisible, for sometimes hours at a time, doesn’t have its benefits. The man has discovered that he can walk into any gentrifier boite in town, check out the band and not have to worry about dropping a double sawbuck on a glass of fancy beer or a tiny, garlic-deprived crostini. He just needs to stay out of the way of the kids staggering around the joint.

Unfortunately, invisibility isn’t something that the man can switch on or off. The bank, the jewelry store, the lumber yard, the supermarket: it never occurs at any of those places. He’s tried all of them, only to be disappointed every time.

But here, it’s a welcome change to be at least marginally perceptible. Because of who he is, the Man in the Long Black Coat’s favorite holiday is Halloween: invisible or not, this is the one time of the year that’s really his.

The long, rectangular groundfloor space is obviously somebody’s home – with a big stage in the back. The hosts are throwing a Halloween kegger, and there are bands. The crowd is demographically diverse, a few in costume but mostly not. Nobody’s taking selfies, and people are talking directly to one another rather than texting. The man is reminded of downtown Manhattan theatre crowds in the days before the Long Black Coat. These people are sharp, and energetic: they all look like they’d love a turn onstage.

As it turns out, many of them end up doing exactly that. One of the drummers opens the night with a few stagy Rocky Horror-style bits. Is one of those ghoul-camp numbers actually from the Rocky Horror soundtrack? It’s been so long since the Man in the Long Black Coat heard the album that he can’t remember. Being ensconsed behind a couch, close to the keg, doesn’t help the memory factor.

Toot Sweet are the first band onstage. Accordionist Mary Spencer Knapp, rocking a leopard-print bodysuit, wields her axe like a guitar. Her vocals are fierce, intense, sometimes channeling righteous rage, like a young Rachelle Garniez. The songs mash up noir cabaret and Brecht/Weill, punk and new wave, with a distant latin influence. The new wave aspect is heightened by the  second keyboard, a synthesizer, taking the occasional keening solo over a nimble rhythm section. The crowd sings along: they want more than they get.

Dressed as a superhero, Haley Bowery – leader of the Manimals – makes her way through the crowd, handing out jello shots. The Man in the Long Black Coat takes one. It’s a scary toothpaste blue, but it tastes fruity and it has a kick. The man doesn’t need it. A welcome if unexpected shift into invisible mode just a couple of hours earlier gave him a chance to crash a shi-shi Alphabet City party and pound one glass of bourbon after another like a college kid. He’s never been able to drink himself visible – usually it seems to work the other way – but the way things are going here, he reasons that this might be the night.

The Manimals take the stage: Bowery on the mic, guitarists Michael Jayne and Chris Norwood trading licks on their flashy Les Pauls, melodic bassist Jack Breslin pushing the songs alongside drummer Matt O’Koren. The Man in the Long Black Coat thinks to himself that this is what it must have been like to see Bowie around the time of the Aladdin Sane album – but with a woman out front. Back when the band were known as Haley Bowery and the Manimals, they had a bit of a glam thing going, but they sound a lot more British and a whole lot more eclectic now. Verses don’t necessarily resolve into choruses and vice versa, and there’s a lot more angst – and depth – to the songs.

And just like Bowie, there’s an alienatedly reassuring ‘you’re not alone” theme to several of the songs. So this is where all the Rock n Roll Suicides of 2018 have gone, The Man in the Long Black Coat muses. Haley was a decent singer back in 2012 – when he saw her at Webster Hall on a twinbill with the amazingly lyrical noir cabaret-punk band Hannah vs. the Many – but she is fantastic now, with a highwire wail that she cuts loose when she really wants to drive a chorus through the roof.

With her piercing blue eyes, boxcutter cheekbones and lithe stage presence, she also looks a lot bigger onstage than she really is. One superhero outfit eventually falls to the side for another superhero look, a unitard this time. Hannah Fairchild from Hannah vs. the Many takes a cameo on harmony vocals and adds her own rocket-fuel wail to the mix. At the end of the show, Haley pulls out an old song, Halloween. “Fuck the rest of them, let’s paaaarty,” is the chorus. The crowd seem to know all the words. The Man in the Long Black Coat gives the band a devils-horns salute: maybe someday we won’t need to shlep all the way to Crown Heights to see a show like this.

Happy Halloween, everybody.

The Manimals play Hank’s on Nov 9 at around 9. Hannah vs. the Many are at the Way Station on Nov 10 at 10.

A Promising, Characteristically Eclectic Start to This Year’s Bryant Park Accordion Festival

This year’s Bryant Park Accordion Festival runs through Sept 14 and promises to be as rapturously fun as last year’s was. On Wednesday evenings starting at 5:30 PM, a rotating cast of accordionists play half-hour sets of an amazingly eclectic range of music. This year there are five sets happening simultaneously, which created some dissonance on opening night when one group was going full steam while their neighbor played a quiet ballad. But the music was sublime.

For a connoisseur of accordion music – and who wouldn’t want to be one, right? – it’s always a triage. Forro or klezmer? Irish folk-punk or cumbia? The advantage of staggered sets is that you get multiple chances to see your favorite player or style of music. This week it was easy to choose a set by the brilliant and erudite Christina Crowder to begin the evening. Most of her numbers were minor-key Jewish wedding tunes, including a bouncy one about giving away the family’s youngest daughter, along with a mysterious, enveloping theme typically played early in the day for relatives of the betrothed. She romped through a jaunty bulgar and another, more somber tune, both of which contained the Twilight Zone riff. Late in the set, she treated the crowd to a Moldavian tune whose title translates roughly as “Freestyle Over This Groove.” Crowder didn’t rap; instead, she built an ambience that was as kinetic as it was hypnotic.

After that, it was time to head to the southeastern corner of the park for an even livelier set of oldschool cumbia and vallenato – “Colombian country music,” as accordionist Foncho Castellar termed it. Backed by a couple of percussionists, he played button accordion. The trio romped through some very brisk cumbias before the even more rustic stuff about peasants in the big city, or way out on the frontera, dancing, partying and chasing women.

After that, Susan Hwang – half of haunting literary art-rock duo Lusterlit – broke out her accordion for a deviously fun set. Backed by a djembe player, she opened with a coyly exasperated, new wave-flavored original, from her days with charming late zeros/early teens trio the Debutante Hour, concerning New York parking. Her funniest cover was a remake of the Willie Dixon/Muddy Waters blues classic, which she titled Hoochie Koochie Woman. Another fun one was an original from her lit-rock collective the Bushwick Book Club, a thoughtful, quirky bounce told from the point of view of physicist Richard Feynman.

Like Hwang, Dolunay frontwoman Jenny Luna is best known as a singer and percussionist. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to call her one of New York’s – and arguably the world’s – most riveting, shattering vocalists. She’s also a first-rate Balkan and Middle Eastern drummer. As it turns out, she’s a competent accordionist as well. Much as she got plenty of brooding, sometimes haunting atmospherics and chromatics wafting from her reeds, it was her voice that held the crowd spellbound,. She began with a moody tone  poem of sorts, then a couple of Rumeli (Balkan Turkish) laments that gave her a chance to air out both her soaring highs and haunting low register. She wound up the set with a jaunty if hardly blithe singalong, in Turkish – the chorus translated roughly as variations on “be my habibi.”

Next week’s installment of the festival, at 5:30 PM on Aug 22, features a similarly diverse lineup including but not limited to gothic Americana songwriter Sam Reider; the torchy, swinging Erica Mancini; edgy, avant garde-influenced chamber pop singer Mary Spencer Knapp; Argentine tango duo Tinta Roja and Mexican norteño crew Toro de la Sierra.

A Smoldering Acoustic Set and an Electric Williamsburg Gig by Lizzie & the Makers

The blues can be primeval, and otherworldly, and sometimes just plain chilling. Lizzie Edwards, frontwoman of Lizzie & the Makers, doesn’t limit her songs to a simple 1-4-5. And her subject matter extends a lot further beyond your usual soul/blues turf . Last week, her band’s flickering, blue-flame, semi-acoustic set at Pete’s Candy Store featured a song about a breakdown on the highway and all its ominous implications, along with a handful of angst-fueled oldschool soul ballads. But there was also a number drawing on the Orpheus/Euridyce myth, another inspired by the Rachmaninoff C Sharp Minor Prelude, and a sardonically moody, psychedelically enveloping one about getting fired from a well-known Brooklyn music venue. Lizzie & the Makers are plugging all of their amps in for their next show on August 26 at 9 PM at Black Bear Bar on North Sixth Street in Williamsburg (the old Galapagos/Public Assembly space), where you can expect the band to deliver their usual mix of thrills and chills. But in its own quiet way, last week’s show was every bit as intense.

Most high-voltage bands are completely out of their element in an acoustic setting. This band is all about dynamics, which explains why they didn’t lose any edge even if the volume was way down. And it gave Edwards and her harmony singers this time out- Mary Spencer Knapp and Sarah Wise – a chance to bring extra nuance and mystery to the songs’ darkest corners. Lonely Soul, with its eerie three-part harmonies, took on a Halloweenish tinge, bassist Tony Tino supplying a brooding pulse for this doomed exploration of abandonment in Greek mythology. Guitarists Greg McMullen and James Winwood exchanged solos, moving from elegant spirals to deep-sky psychedelia in Far from Home, the late-night breakdown scenario

In front of the band crammed onto the stage behind her, Edwards rocked a fire-engine-red vintage sundress. By halfway through the set, she was into her second glass of straight whiskey, but even in the evening’s tropical heat, it didn’t visibly affect her. The dusky ambience extended from the band to the crowd and held everybody in its grip. A darkly rustic oilcan slide guitar solo from McMullen lit up Hopeless, an uneasy nighttime street scene. You might not think that an acoustic version of a big barnburner would play up its underlying southern boogie feel, but that’s what the band did with Free. The most psychedelic of all the songs was the brooding, distantly Beatlesque anthem Sleep It Off, as woundedly imagistic as it was bleary-eyed in its allusive account of the aftermath of getting fired from the old Trash Bar. Edwards, who also worked at Pete’s for a time, knows her turf. They wrapped up the set with a soaringly crescendoing take of the full-tilt boogie The Bear and its tense wee-hours tale of averting disaster at the last second, something Edwards also seems to know something about.

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.

Looking Forward and Back to a Couple of Tantalizing Album Cover Nights

An allstar cast of downtown New York talent got together this past August 27 at Hifi Bar, where they played Young Marble Giants’ cult favorite 1981 album Colossal Youth – right at the same time that the regrouped original band was doing the exact same thing at Royal Festival Hall in London. It’s not clear if the London show was recorded, but thanks to Elemental Films – who’ve also captured a ton of amazing, rare footage of Molly Ruth, the Shootout Band and many others – the night was immortalized, and you can watch it on youtube!

“In the year 1980, songs like Babe, by Styx and Lady, by Kenny Rogers were at the top of the pops…and this album was happening at the same time, something beautiful and stark and more powerful because it had such a sense of loneliness about it. Becuase of that, it has withstood the test of time. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to listen to Babe – I want to listen to Colossal Youth,“ organizer and Elk City forntwoman Renee Lobue explained with more sincerity than snark.

Without further ado, Lysa Opfer stepped to the mic for Searching for Mr. Right, guitarist Sam Weisberg supplying a spare proto-skronk as bassist Tom Shad held down a similarly stark reggae pulse in tandem with syndrum player Joe Fee. Shad, in particular, had a ball with Philip Moxhan’s incisive, all-over-the-place lines, pretty much note-for-note with the original, for the most part sticking to a biting, trebly tone. On guitar, Weisberg and Andy Wellington beefed up the originals, no surprise since they were using far better amps and a real sound system as opposed to a cheap four-track recorder. Speed the Plough‘s John Baumgartner supplied aptly swirly, noir-tinged organ lines when the songs required them. On the other hand, most of the singers – some of them guys – lent their own original style to the vocals rather than trying to match Alison Stottam’s muted, moody vocal delivery.

But many of those voices were as individualistic as hers, and made these new interpretations every bit as compelling as the originals. Paula Carino‘s assertively velvety vocals on Salad Days beat Stottam at her own game, a real treat. Earlier, Toot Sweet‘s Mary Spencer Knapp ramped up the angst over the stuttering bass and guitars on Constantly Changing. The Bush Tetras’ Cynthia Sley added color and dimension to the title track, and Lobue brightened up The Man Amplifier. Lobue, Carino, Opfer and Verena Wiesendanger joined voices at the end for a bittersweet take of Final Day. Even Hifi owner Mike Stuto – the man stoking the “starmaker machinery behind the unpopular songs,” as Kendall Meade recently put it – made a cameo on the mic midway through The Taxi.

Another cover night that could be off the hook happens this Monday, October 5 at 7:30 PM when a similarly talented cast including jazz and folk noir chanteuse Erica Smith and fiery, gospel-infused belter Lizzie Edwards play Paul McCartney’s Ram album all the way through at Bowery Electric. Shad being one of the masterminds of the Young Marble Giants night, it’s likely that he’ll be a big part of this too, alongside Charly Roth, the rare player who’s equally adept at drums and keyboards, plus a similarly strong band alongside them. Cover is $10.

Young Marble Giants on Both Sides of the Pond

What’s the most unlikely band reunion ever? The Velvet Underground? Or when Pink Floyd got back together for that live tv cameo? How about this August 27 at 7:30 PM, when Young Marble Giants will play their cult favorite 1981 album Colossal Youth at London’s Royal Festival Hall? There’s karmic justice, and no little irony in the fact that thirty-five years after they first broke up, the band are playing one of their biggest gigs ever. What’s probably just as unlikely is that they’d be together to do it at all. £17.50 balcony seats are still available for budget-minded London postpunk fans.

Meanwhile, on this side of the pond, a stellar and similarly unlikely collection of downtown New York rock talent are getting together at the exact same hour at Hifi Bar to play the album in its entirety. Springboarded by Elk City’s Renee LoBue, the performers include folk noir chanteuse Erica Smith, janglerock mastermind Paula Carino, the Bush Tetras’ Cynthia Sley, Toot Sweet‘s acerbic Mary Spencer Knapp, Speed the Plow‘s John and Toni Baumgartner, along with many, many others. This is a gig where there may be as many band members as audience members in the house.

The album itself is quirky, very humbly and rather primitively recorded, and an acquired taste for some. A favorite of college radio dj’s when it came out, it’s considered one of the foundations of lo-fi music in general. As precious and prissy as so much so-called bedroom pop is, it wouldn’t be a stretch to file the record within that genre. Stuart Moxham’s minimalist, tentative guitar and simple yet saturnine keyboards made an apt backdrop for frontwoman Alison Statton’s distinctive, unassuming, low-key vocals, punctuated by Moxham’s brother Philip’s incisive if similarly simple bass work. You can check it out – or revisit fond college dorm memories – at Spotify.

Speaking of performers who’re doing the tribute show, Smith and Knapp most recently shared the stage at 2A at the end of May, on a fantastic quadruplebill with American Ambulance‘s Pete Cenedella and host Monica “L’il Mo” Passin. Passin distinguished herself with her ability to shift seamlessly between innumerable styles, from Brill Building pop, to latin soul, rockabilly, oldschool C&W and rootsy bar-band rock. Her guitar playing was just as eclectic: she’s the rare player who can do a song solo acoustic, stick a solo in the middle and have it seem perfectly natural even without bass and drums.

Knapp’s accordion work was just as diverse, running the gamut from torchy French chanson, to enigmatic bedroom pop (if anybody on this bill really GETS Young Marble Giants, it’s her), ornately theatrical art-rock and an unexpected and very successful detour toward the avant garde. Passin playfully needled Cenedella for his handful of references to ganja, in several numbers from American Ambulance’s cult classic Streets of NYC album, a bittersweet look at uneasy teenage romance in New York in the late 70s. Which was funny, since Cenedella’s blend of twangy Americana and biting Graham Parker-esque proto new wave songcraft is the furthest thing from stoner music.

The star of the show was Smith, who held the audience rapt with a mix of new material and old favorites. As she told the crowd, her songs typically fit into three distinct categories: death songs, seduction songs and despair songs. An unexpectedly seductive number was the chilling, nocturnal Nashville, Tennessee, a stark waltz from Smith’s Snowblind album. Along with similarly spare, plaintive versions of the folk standards Pretty Saro and Wayfaring Stranger, she spun quietly through the wrenchingly poignant River King, a gently swaying, Fairport Convention-ish art-folk number with a knockout punch, a metaphorically loaded tale of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. She also brought out a handful of new numbers: the night’s most impactful song was a brand-new one, Veterans of Foreign Wars, a brooding, suspensefully enveloping waltz with what could be a chilling allusion to the Eric Garner murder. Although Smith’s imagery is opaque and allusive – that’s the seduction thing going on – so you never know.

And after the four onstage had wrapped up their evening, the irrepressibly charming, ebullient, wickedly tight swing jazz harmony trio the Tickled Pinks lept onstage with their bassist and guitarist and kept the audience on the sunny side of the street with a brief set of standards. “They’re all the same song,” bandleader Karla Rose (of brilliant, psychedelic noir quartet Karla Rose & the Thorns) joked, but all that counterpoint, and all those harmonic leaps all over the place, aren’t exactly easy. But the trio sang as if they’d been doing this all their lives. Which they sort of have.

Passin’s next show upstairs at 2A is this August 30 at 9, where she switches to bass to play with countrypolitan chanteuse Drina Seay‘s fantastic noir-inclined band.