New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: monica passin

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.

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.

Robin Aigner Brings Her Bittersweet, Richly Lyrical, Picturesque Americana to Barbes

Robin Aigner is one of the most darkly entertaning performers in New York. Long sought after as both a frontwoman and harmony singer – her time in chamber pop luminaries Pinataland ought to be at leat semi-legendary – she’s just as strong a songwriter. Her music draws equal on 19th century folk, Prohibition-era swing and oldtime hillbilly songs, with the occasional detour into Balkan sounds. And she can be hilarious: her lyrics are all about subtext, and double entendres, and history. She’s written about molasses floods in WWI-era Boston, inept Williamsburg buskers and imagined romances between such improbable figures as Irving Berlin and the first woman to come in through Ellis Island (she was Irish). And Aigner is an unreconstructed romantic – her characters get all bumped and bruised no matter what century they’re in, but they don’t quit. She and her charming chamber pop band Parlour Game are playing Barbes on August 8 at 8 PM, followed at 10 by Banda de los Muertos, a supergroup of NYC jazz types playing rousingly anthemic Sinaloa-style Mexican ranchera music for brass band.

Aigner is also an impresario: her previous gig was a mind-bogglingly eclectic, surprising, sometimes downright haunting night of Tom Waits covers at Freddy’s, featuring a diverse cast of characters including but hardly limited to Mamie Minch, Serena Jost, Pierre de Gaillande, Brooke Watkins, Dave Benjoya, Andrew Sovine and numerous others. She also put together the show before that, a magical night at the Jalopy with folk noir songwriter Erica Smith, rockabilly and retro guitar maven Monica Passin a.k.a. L’il Mo and devious accordion-and-violin duo the Wisterians. “Every month is World Wine Month,” Aigner announced to the audience at the Jalopy gig, and while she didn’t indulge in more than a couple of glasses during her set, that comment set the tone. Playing solo on guitar, she opened with Delores from Florence, an allusive yet minutely detailed tale of transcontinental love gone wrong set to a soaringly cantering, flamenco-tinged waltz.

After that, she did See You Around, a broodingly pulsing, wryly wistful number told from the point of view of a woman struggling to get past being smitten by a guy who clearly has no use for her in daylight. Pearl Polly Adler – an innuendo-packed shout-out to the legendary FDR-era bordello owner – looked back to early 20th century pop, when 90% of the stuff coming out of New York had a tasty, bracing klezmer tinge. For that matter, so did Kiss Him When He’s Down, a jaunty endorsement for giving a roofie to your significant other – or insignificant other – in order to get what you want.

Switching to uke, Aigner drew plenty of laughs with Crazy, a hilariously detailed litany of the kind of weirdos a woman can date if she sees fit. She went for darker ambience with the plaintive, alienated war survivor’s tale El Paraiso, then picked things up again with the jaunty Irving and Annie – Annie thinks Irving can play sonatas (he can’t) and later on in the song, she references Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island), which used to serve as a quasi-quarantine and was the site of one of New York’s first hospitals. After another moody, low-key number, Aigner teamed with Watkins on accordion to wind up her set with Greener, a soaringly anxious, bitter post-party alienation anthem that works on innumerable levels. If we’re lucky, she’ll play some and maybe all of these songs at Barbes.

Erica Smith Is Back with a Vengeance

Erica Smith is one of the most diverse and most shatteringly evocative singers in New York. She got her start in oldtime folk music – we’re talking eighteenth century, sea chanteys and such – then went deep into Americana, then played everything from janglerock to psychedelia to torchy jazz with her backup band the 99 Cent Dreams. Most recently, she’s been enlisted to sing the Linda Thompson role in the Shootout Band, the downtown NYC supergroup who specialize in Richard and Linda Thompson songs. Smith is also one-third of the amazing all-female gospel frontline of Lizzie & the Sinners. But she hasn’t lost a step writing and performing her own plaintive, pensive, sometimes exhilarating originals. She’s doing a relatively rare (at least, these days) solo gig on May 31 at 9 PM upstairs at 2A on an excellent bill with fellow Americana guitarist/singer Monica Passin, a.k.a. L’il Mo, with wryly edgy, politically-fueled American Ambulance frontman Pete Cenedella headlining at around 11.

Smith’s most recent solo show was on a similarly kick-ass quadruplebill at the Jalopy back in February with Passin, the witty, historically-inspired, lyrically brilliant Robin Aigner and then the coyly whimsical, multistylistic violin-accordion duo the Wisterians. Smith opened with one of her most picturesque, intense numbers, River King, a waterside tableau that puts a terse update on classic Fairport Convention. Her new material was also strong: a bittersweet, fingerpicked oldtimey Piedmont-style blues; an even more bittersweet, summery waltz set in Corlear’s Hook Park on the Lower East Side; and an angst-driven narrative written on the eve of a Colorado blizzzard, with flight cancelllations and their immense implications. And she treated the Americana purists in the crowd to a downright haunting, brooding take of Wayfaring Stranger and a low-key, simmering version of the old folk standard Pretty Saro, from her cult favorite album Friend or Foe.

The rest of that night could easily have been anticlimactic but it wasn’t. Passin pulled off the rare feat of playing lots of guitar solos, solo acoustic, and managed to make them work without sounding skeletal and ungrounded. Aigner cut loose with that richly ambered, jazzily nuanced voice of hers, singing sly hokum blues, metaphorically-loaded Depression-era historical narratives and allusively snarling ballads. And the Wisterians – violinist Karl Meyer and accordionist Brooke Watkins – matched Aigner one-liner for one-liner with a clever, sometimes vaudevillian set that spanned from oldtime Americana, to Belgian barroom dance music, to edgy, chromatically-fueled Balkan folk.

The Irrepressible Deena Shoshkes Opens a Night of Cult Favorites This Friday in Park Slope

Some music you can listen to pretty much anytime. Deena Shoshkes‘ music is what you might want to hear when you DON’T want to hear noiserock…or eardrum-smashing jazz improvisation…or doom metal. It’s upbeat and fun and cheery without being bland. For the longest time, Shoshkes fronted the Cucumbers, one of the defining Hoboken bands of the 80s and 90s. Her chirpy high soprano and irrepressible charm won the group an avid cult following, as well as earning a curmudgeonly backlash from a faction who found the band terminally cute. In the years since, Shoshkes has gotten more in touch with her lower register, has added a tinge of smoke and plenty of welcome nuance to her vocals. She’s opening a historically rich triplebill of cult favorites with her band the Laughing Boys at Union Hall in Park Slope this Friday night, March 20 at 8:30 PM followed by downtown NYC postpunk supergroup Heroes of Toolik and then Hoboken janglerock vets Speed the Plow at around 10:30. Cover is $10.

Shoshkes’ latest album Rock River is streaming at Spotify. Her calling cards are craft and a sense of humor. On one level, she takes what does does completely seriously, but she doesn’t seem to take herself seriously at all, and the result is infectious. After awhile, it’s hard to be curmudgeonly, you just start bobbing your head and humming along. A droll spin of the maracas here; a lush waterfall of twelve-string jangle there; a little silly P-Funk portamento synth; references to Brill Building pop, vintage C&W, the majestic clang of the Church in the 80s, even 90s trip-hop in the spirit of edgier bands like Madder Rose.

Her longtime fellow Cucumber Jon Fried adds southern-fried [resisting the urge to say cucumber!} flavor to the punchy opening track, My Own Advice. Longtime Hoboken (ok, ex-Hoboken) luminaries Rebecca Turner and Elena Skye make a Spectoresque chorus on All She Wrote, which sounds like a L’il Mo country crowdpleaser. There are a couple of pensively swaying ventures into Tex-Mex balladry. There’s a soaring country anthem spiced with Jonathan Gregg’s washes of pedal steel that wouldn’t be out of place in the Amy Allison songbook. There’s a saucy organ-and-horn-driven soul groove. Other tracks channels watery new wave and wistful chamber pop. And just when Shoshkes has you thinking that all this is about the hooks and the arrangements, she zings you with a line like “Lost a lot a long time ago in the backdrop of her eyes.”

You aren’t going to hear her sing about how the remains of the Fukushima reactors keep leaking into the Pacific, and that it’s going to kill every living thing on the planet if we don’t stop the deluge. Expecting her to do a song about the Pentagon trying to engineer regime change in Russia – and inciting a global nuclear holocaust – would be a bit of a stretch. Shoshkes seems more content working the corners of a song, intricately and thoughtfully, and having so much fun with it that it makes you jealous. You can get that kind of jealous this Friday in Brooklyn.

Drina Seay Sings Haunting and Happy Americana at 2A

Drina Seay is one of the best-kept secrets in the New York Americana scene. Revered by her peers, she earned a reputation as a go-to harmony singer and then all of a sudden was fronting a killer band with a more-or-less regular residency at Lakeside Lounge. With Lakeside gone and Rodeo Bar out of the music business, she’s been without a home base, but she’s kept at it. She and the band – Homeboy Steve Antonakos on lead guitar, Monica “L’il Mo” Passin on bass and Eric Seftel on drums – were at the top of their game upstairs at 2A this past weekend, playing a characteristically rich mix of noir 60s rock, luridly torchy ballads, some janglerock and a little oldschool C&W.

The high point of the show was the slowest song, Chase My Blues Away. It’s a real showstopper, and Seay pulled out all the stops, beginning with just her own solo vocal-and-guitar intro before the drums came in, slow and dirgey. This time the song was more about the blues than chasing them away, at least until Antonakos did that midway through with a thrashing,  jaggedly menacing solo.

Seay kept the darkly twangy songcraft going, through a relatively new, enigmatic breakup song, part southwestern gothic, party noir Vegas shuffle, lit up by Antonakos’ eerie tarantella leads. His steely minimalist fills paired off against Seay’s crystalline, wounded vocals on Waking Up Crying. Then he played blazing slide guitar on the menacingly bouncy kiss-off anthem All For You over Passin’s torchy Pink Panther-style walking bassline.

Seay told the crowd that she’d written the unselfconsciously gorgeous, lushly nocturnal, oldtimey-flavored I Couldn’t Have Dreamed You on her ukulele, so she capoed her guitar way up in order to play the sweetly coy central hook. The rest of the set was more upbeat: the Sugar Magnolia-tinged Watcha Gonna Do; a slinky, nocturnal, Creedence-ish swamp rock tune; and a couple of animated, garage rock-flavored Antonakos tunes. They closed by taking Delaney & Bonnie’s early 70s top 40 hit Never Ending Song of Love full circle, back to the country that those Brits only wish they knew well enough to really get it right the first time around. Seay’s next show is Sept 19 at 9 PM at the Way Station in Ft. Greene; Antonakos is at Espresso 77, 35-57 77th St. in Jackson Heights tonight with his 1920s style Greek gangsta blues band Dervisi.

More of the Sunday Salon and Such

In a lot of ways, New York Music Daily’s Sunday Salon at Zirzamin is a misnomer. It’s a sophisticated scene, but it’s not exactly sedate. There’s no telling what’s going to happen. A lot of the time there’s something during the parade of performers leading up to the 7 PM featured set that upstages the headliner. Drina Seay covering LJ Murphy’s Waiting by the Lamppost for You was one of them. On one hand, watching her sing “I’m hungover and showing my years” was just plain funny (she looks about grad-school age: if you were a bartender, you’d card her). But that didn’t matter: she can wail when she wants, but she hung back and gave it a poignancy and dignity that you wouldn’t expect in a portrait of sheer dejection and despair.

Then there was Charming Disaster  – Kotorino’s Jeff Morris with Elia Bisker – doing a jaunty yet absolutely creepy four-handed ragtime piano piece and managing not to claw each other, Bisker’s moonscape resonance over Morris’ deadpan romp. They headlined Salon number 22 with a menacingly charming duo set with Morris mostly on guitar and Bisker on ukulele. She’s got the distant femme fatale persona down, dead cold, the perfect foil for Morris’ brooding gypsy and swing-spiked bounces and waltzes. They did not one but two songs about murder conspiracies gone wrong, a similarly failed twin grifters’ tale as well as moody, nocturnal material from each others’ catalogs. They make a good team, and they play a lot of shows: watch this space.

Lorraine Leckie followed them on a rare doublebill. This time out she had Calum Ingram on cello playing ominous low register ambience, with Banjo Lisa adding her stark, scary-beautiful otherworldly vocal harmonies. You would think that Leckie would have used this configuration to air out the darkest side – which is very, very dark – of her recent chamber pop songs, but instead she flipped the script and took a lot of her more upbeat rock catalog down into the abyss. What once had a T-Rex feel in this configuration sounded a lot more like Ziggy-era Bowie but with better vocals. She’s at the big room at the Rockwood on April 22 at 8.

To backtrack a little, Serena Jost headlined Salon 19 a couple of weeks previously . The multi-instrumentalist bandleader/chanteuse had a Joe’s Pub show to warm up for, and counterintuitively, instead of bringing the band and doing what would have been an open rehearsal, she went to a similarly stripped-down configuration featuring the eclectically brilliant Amanda Thorpe on slide guitar, keys, wood flute and also stark, scary-beautiful harmonies. Jost gets props for her cello work, but she’s also a brilliant singer – hanging out with Thorpe all these years has rubbed off. Through lithely jangling chamber pop, stark cello-and-voice tableaux, a stately 6/8 art-rock anthem, she radiated a lowlit allure with her precise, measured vocals, ripe to the point of drawing everyone in without falling off the vine. Then at Joe’s Pub, she and her full band – Julian Maile on guitar, Rob Jost on bass and horn, Rob DiPietro on drums, a keyboardist, and Thorpe and Greta Gertler on harmonies – soared and occasionally roared through most of the songs on her sensationally good new album A Bird Will Sing. The high point of the show – and maybe the past month, in terms of sheer sonic bliss – was the trio of high harmonies on an irresistibly pulsing, crescendoing version of Sweet Mystery, a song that could not have been more aptly titled.

The star of Salon 20 was Seay, who brought a full band featuring Eric Seftel on drums, Monica Passin a.k.a. L’il Mo playing bass as if she’d been doing it her whole life (she had about a week’s worth of practice, it turned out – who knew). “Is there a better guitarist in New York than Steve Antonakos?” one audience member wondered aloud as Seay’s lead player fired off keening pedal steel-style lines, cooly menacing Nashville gothic riffs and soulfully intricate jazz leads. Sassy, sophisticated country songs like the catchy shuffle Whatcha Gonna Do and the soul-infused, stop-time bounce Can’t Fight Falling in Love paired off against the absolutely gorgeous, minor-key Waking Up Crying, an absolutely evil, slide guitar-driven, oldtime swing-flavored All For You and the torchy, Julia Haltigan-esque Where Is the Moon Tonight. The high point of the set was when Seay segued from a slow, slinky, absolutely lurid take of one of her best ballads, Chase My Blues Away to Francoise Hardy’s Le Temps de L’Amour and gave that one a New York noir edge, singing in perfect French. A week later, Antonakos  would be the headliner at Salon 20 with his own tuneful, sardononically humorous songs, joined by Seay who this time added harmonies as she did so memorably back in the day at Banjo Jim’s before she started her own band.

The regular cast has had more memorable moments than can be counted. The Salon’s own Lauraly Grossman’s Cat Power-ish narratives edge closer and closer to noir, shadowy blues. LJ Murphy kicked off Seay’s set with a ferocious, bluesy intensity, hot on the heels of his careening trio performance at Hank’s Saloon the previous Saturday with Professor Jim Porter guesting and adding a whole other level of creepy surrealism on washboard. And this past week, Amelia Belle-Isle graced the stage with her ridiculously tuneful oldtime swing-flavored songs and subtle, alluring voice.

There have been plenty of other great shows happening around town, literally too many to chronicle here. The last week of the past month, the Wu-tang Clan’s Raekwon delivered a nonchalant, impressively tight, seemingly endless medley of his 90s hits at the swanky new Stage 48 way over past 12th Ave. on 48th Street. The place was packed with a mix of older people who knew every word and practicallly drowned out the vocals (the sound here seems to be a work in progress), and kids getting their first look at one of the icons of 90s East Coast hardcore. The Chef began with Cash Rules Everything Around Me and just got hotter from there.

Violinist Courtney Orlando and cellist Lauren Radnofsky’s performance of Luciano Berio sequenzas at the Miller Theatre last month deserves a mention. These pieces are like wartime: frenzied, anxious, cruelly frantic cadenzas that suddenly give way to still, suspenseful ambience, and while neither musician made it look easy – that would have been impossible – just getting through them without breaking strings would have been a triumph. That they were able to mine those weird juxtapositions for genuine emotion made the concert all the more worthwhile. That, and all the free beer the theatre was giving away.

The night of the Drina Seay show at the Salon, New York Junk played one of those oldschool New York punk bills at Bowery Electric. On one hand, their tunefully growling, glammy early 70s style isn’t covering any new ground, but just like the Dolls and Lou Reed, they’re catchy and they have the sound, and the wry, black humor-driven, black leather-clad doom and angst down cold. The bassist – formerly of 80s punk legends the B-Girls – bopped and pushed the songs along with catchy riffage underneath the Stonesy roar of the two guitarists.

This past week had a trifecta of good shows. Tom Warnick & World’s Fair played their usual gallows humor-driven mix of blue-eyed soul, horror surf, Doorsy jamrock and New England noir at Freddy’s Saturday night. Jerome O’Brien, late of the great Dog Show played a mix of his endlessly entertaining, literate rock tunes solo on twelve-string guitar at…where else…Zirzamin. And Maynard & the Musties brought their mix of wry oldschool country and dark highway rock to Cowgirl Seahorse down in South Street Seaport, Naa Koshie Mills’ violin/viola lines soaring over Dikko Faust’s trombone and Mo Botton’s richly twangy guitar. Frontman Joe Maynard writes some of the most nonchalantly poignant, richly tuneful songs around: it was a treat to hear him and the crew swing their way through the dark-sky, Neil  Young-ish expanse of Lightly Honest and the gorgeous yet utterly twisted Elvis Museum.

Yet Another Good Album From L’il Mo & the Monicats

As a songwriter and bandleader, L’il Mo A.K.A Monica Passin has been a major player in the New York Americana roots music scene since the 90s. Her music is traditionalist yet completely in the moment, a mashup of early 50s pre-rockabilly, western swing and straight-up country that actually could have existed back then, considering how much cross-pollination there was going on between all of those styles of music. Yet as much as the instrumentation is oldschool, her songwriting is in the here and now, and uniquely her own. For example, on her latest album, Whole Lotta Lovin, one of the tracks is a Tex-Mex ballad, but with a balmy feel that captures a Coney Island setting. Not something that probably existed fifty years ago, but something that could have been if there’d been more traffic between Brooklyn and Nashville.

This is Passin’s most intimate album. It’s just her on guitar and vocals, along with Drina Seay – an equally sophisticated and eclectic songwriter in her own right – serving as a one-woman choir of David Lynch girls, plus producer Hank Bones on a guitar store’s worth of instruments including guitars, bass, lapsteel, drums and cornet. The production matches the sparse but spirited arrangements of the era that the songs hark back to. The albums opens with the title track, taking a tune straight out of Buddy Holly (it modulates), adds glisteningly scary harmonies by Seay and a pinpoint, period-perfect guitar solo from Bones to complete the picture – all that in two minutes and four seconds.

The second track, Little Heart Attacks, evokes Patsy Cline, although Passin’s voice is higher and more plaintive: she’s got a wide open, round, rustic delivery full of blue notes that often evokes a young Dolly Parton, equal parts sassiness and vulnerability. Bones adds poignancy on the low end with tantalizingly brief baritone guitar and steel parts. The album’s best song, When Girls Sing has Passin and Seay doing a female Orbison thing over shuffling Nashville gothic pop and a ringing, terse twelve-string solo from Bones.

In addition to Passin’s originals, there are a handful of intriguing covers here. Three Cool Cats gets reinvented as total noir, similar to Elvis’ version of The Fever except lit up with lurid, ringing reverb guitar incisions from Bones. Real Gone Jive gets a rousing hillbilly boogie treatment with more spiky Bones reverb guitar, while Passin’s vocals give Teri Joyce’s I Can’t Help Myself an unexpectedly cool, jazzy Chris Connor/Bliss Blood ambience. The album goes out on a high note with a Passin original, Too Much Time with Your Tears, a jaunty blend of 60s soul and C&W, full-bodied vocals and boomy bass alongside Bones’ artful R&B guitar that eventually builds to a biting solo. Along with her vocals, Passin’s guitar work also deserves a mention – she doesn’t confine herself to strictly playing chords, roaming all over the fretboard as she airs out her collection of oldschool country, rockabilly and blues licks. Anybody with a thing for vintage Americana sounds – like the Sweetback Sisters, featured on this page recently – is in for a treat with this one.