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Is It Safe to Say That Murder Ballad Mondays Are Killer?

It took four months worth of Murder Ballad Mondays before somebody played Rock Salt and Nails. It’s one of the real classics of folk noir. And it’s well known. Populist folksinger Nevada Smith gets credited for it, but it’s unlike anything else in his catalog and has a vernacular that looks back as far as the 1850s. And it’s as disconsolate as it is vengeful: the violence is implied, and even then, not til the last verse. Bobtown guitarist and songwriter Karen Dahlstrom channeled that sadness with distance and understatement, saving her powerful wail for a creepy a-cappella performance of her own grim Old West outlaw ballad Streets of Pocatello , from her brilliant Idaho-themed album Gem State. Then she picked up her guitar and did a new one that was a lot quieter but just as eerie.

That’s Murder Ballad Mondays in a nutshell: elite performers having fun with deadly tales from across the centuries and from their own repertoire as well. So far, the two most popular covers at this well-attended monthly extravaganza seem to be Delia’s Gone and Henry Lee, referencing both Johnny Cash and Gillian Welch. But the originals are what people come for: organizers Jeff Morris and Ellia Bisker, better known as torchily menacing parlor pop duo Charming Disaster, pack a lot into two hours. The next one is Monday, January 18 at 8 PM at Branded Saloon in Ft. Greene (closest stop is Bergen St. on the 2/3) featuring ominous baritone crooner Sean Kershaw and other similarly minded acts.

Charming Disaster have treated crowds here to short sets at previous Murder Ballad Mondays installments; last time around, they did just a single number, the allusively torchy Ghost Story (although they played a full set at Pete’s Candy Store this past Saturday night, packed the place and delivered an actually very funny show that included both a devastatingly tongue-in-cheek Led Zep cover and a new one about breaking strings onstage).

A duo version of phantasmagorical circus rock/noir cabaret band Orphan Jane – accordionist Tim Cluff and his trumpeter – also joined the festivities last time out, firing off a furtive number simply titled Murder as well as The Mansion Song, a menacingly vaudevillian narrative whose message seems to be that it pays to be cautious when seeking revenge against the one-tenth-of-one-percent: they can afford a bigger army than you.

Other artists included art-rock luminary and multi-instrumentalist Serena Jost, who held the crowd rapt with a typically allusive new tale about murder on the gallery floor, and an icily doomed cover from the current Nordic art-pop catalog. And singer Karen Poliski worked a similar intensity as she went to the well for a chilling Handsome Family cover.

A Killer Murder Ballad Monday Coming Up in Brooklyn

What’s the likelihood of seeing two bands as brilliantly creepy as Bobtown and Charming Disaster on the same bill? And one of New York’s great lead guitarists, and one of the most distinctive banjo players on the planet, and a rising star in the cello-rock demimonde? It happened at the second installment of the new, monthly Murder Ballad Mondays series at Branded Saloon. It’s a salon held in a saloon – rather than an open mic, it’s a place for eclectic artists to prowl around in the darkest corners of the human psyche, pay homage to psychopathic urges in song from across the centuries, and work up new material in that hallowed tradition.

Charming Disaster – guitarist Jeff Morris from the estimable, phantasmagorical  latin noir/art-rock band Kotorino and Ellia Bisker from the similarly-inclined Sweet Soubrette and Funkrust Brass Band – run the show here, and treated the crowd to an all-too-brief, barely half-hour set of menacingly harmony-driven songs that veered from chamber pop to noir cabaret to circus rock. It was the one point in a deviously fun night of music where the songs deviated from the topic of killing to simply chronicling the intricacies of all sorts of troubled relationships, some mythical, some set in the here and now. Morris played with just a touch of distortion on his old hollowbody Gibson as Bisker wound through graceful lead lines on her electric ukulele.

Bobtown – one of the best loved and most menacing bands in folk noir – opened the show, percussionist/keyboardist Katherine Etzel, singer Jen McDearman, guitarist Karen Dahlstrom, bassist Fred Stesney and lead guitarist/banjo player Alan Lee Backer treating the crowd to some unexpected but typically ominous new material, the sparkling harmonies of the women in the band flying overhead. Backer then took a detour into his own vintage-style Americana and C&W, followed by folk singers Sarah Durning and then Karen Poliski parsing the classics with some murderous numbers from the repertoire of Gillian Welch and others.

The  most original of all the covers was a mind-warping take of Helter Skelter, played solo on banjo by Andrew Vladeck of jangly, Americana-inflected anthem band Fireships. Badass, eclectic cello-rock firestarter Patricia Santos (also of Kotorino) went deep into rustic blues/gospel mode with a new one of her own as well as another Gillian Welch tune. Comic relief was provided by Erica Smith‘s bass player taking a rare turn on piano. He’d written a song on the way to the show – a politically-inspired ghoulabilly tune – but couldn’t read the lyrics he’d scribbled moments before on the D train. Backer’s penlight came to the rescue.

This coming Monday’s installment, starting at 8 PM, features an even more auspicious lineup: powerful, soul-infused dark acoustic songwriter Jessi Robertson; brilliant Americana/janglerock tunesmith and harmonium player Jessie Kilguss; the similarly intense, historically-fixated Robin Aigner; songwriter Arthur Schupbach’s John Prine-inspired Donald & Lydia duo project; parlor pop songwriter Juliet Strong and more.

And Charming Disaster have a gig on Saturday night, November 14 at 8 at the Slipper Room; cover is $15.