Unlikely as it is that the leader of one of the city’s most dynamic bands would be just as entertaining and luridly gripping as a solo act, that’s what noir songwriter Julia Haltigan was Saturday night at the Poisson Rouge. It was a good gig for her, not her usual crowd, which tends to be on the young and wild side, something you might expect for someone who channels a torchy, retro allure and a menace that’s sometimes distant and sometimes in your face. This show gave her a chance to connect with an older, bridge-and-tunnel date-night audience who’d come out for an easy-listening evening with singer-songwriter Vonda Shepard. Haltigan’s regular backing unit has jazz sophistication but also feral energy; playing mostly by herself, with just her trusty vintage Gibson guitar and her reverb pedal, she used the moment to work the corners with a razorwire nuance that matched her songs’ simmering intensity.
Haltigan also seized the opportunity to make points with the audience via a couple of good stories. The first concerned some unexpected consequences in the wake of allowing her electric mandolinist dad – who also made a cameo during the show on smoky blues harp – to serve as an admin at her Facebook fan page. The second looked back to a past decade when people had Blackberries. Haltigan explained that she once went about a year without texting “hi” to anyone for fear of the gizmo translating that as “I’m horny.” Her phone ended up embarrassing her that way a couple of times, once in an exchange with her cousins, before she realized what was going on. That took awhile.
One day during rehearsal, she related the story to her bassist. “Remember that time I borrowed your phone?” he asked her. “I reset the autocorrect.”
That was the comic relief from the songs’ relentless, smoky disquiet. An appropriately spare take of Skeleton Dance, she explained, contemplated a sort of “Mickey Mouse version of death.” But that was the exception. A co-write with the Waterboys’ Mike Scott shifted from an enigmatic stroll to the kind of anthemic chorus you’d expect from that band; a little later, Haltigan led the crowd in a singalong of a similarly pensive, oldtime gospel-flavored Freddie Stevenson song. But her own material was the most memorable. She opened with a slow, haunting oldschool soul-tinged ballad, a woman on the run in her Waitsian hotel room in the wee hours, looking back on what she’ll never have again. From there Haltigan went toward dark rockabilly with the irrepressible Gasoline & Matches and the defiant I Don’t Wanna Fall in Love, airing out her powerful low register. The best song of the night was a murderously scampering border rock anthem that wouldn’t have been out of place at a Karla Rose & the Thorns show.
Haltigan next plays with her band on December 15 at 10:15 PM at the Manderley Bar at the McKittrick Hotel, 532 W 27th St. (10th/11th Aves, south side of the street, look for the little red light at the top of the stoop).