Karen Dalhstrom is one of the four first-rate songwriters in Bobtown, who with their unearthly four-part harmonies and creepy tunesmithing are arguably the most distinctive noir Americana band on the planet. They’re playing the album release show for their long-awaited new album, A History of Ghosts on the big stage downstairs at Hill Country at 9:30 PM on Jan 14. Not to take anything away from her work with that band, but Dahlstrom is also a solo artist, with a killer album of her own, Gem State, a collection of songs set in frontier-era Idaho and written in a period-perfect oldtime vernacular. It was good to be able to catch one of her infrequent solo shows awhile back at the American Folk Art Museum across the Broadway/Columbus triangle up by Lincoln Center.
Taking advantage of the space’s natural reverb, Dahlstrom aired out several of the songs from that album, including a goosebump-inducing a-cappella version of Streets of Pocatello, a menacing, hardscrabble hobo’s tale. Miner’s Bride, an even more doomed narrative told by a mail-order bride sent off to an uncertain fate on the high plains, was every bit as haunting. But the high point of the show – and one most spine-tingling moments at any concert in town last year – was her version of Galena. The Idaho city takes its name from a woman, maybe a Russian or Polish immigrant, mother or wife to one of the men who flocked there during the Gold Rush. Over a sad, elegantly waltzing tune, Dahlstrom brought the sudden rise and equally sudden decline of this boomtown to life, aptly personifed as a woman, who ends up “A penny curiosity, old bones in a pinewood vale,” Dahlstrom’s elegaic alto rising just a little from almost a whisper, to low and mournful.
Lara Ewen, the crystalline-voiced Americana songstress who hosts the pretty-much-weekly free Friday evening afterwork acoustic shows at the Folk Art Museum, told the crowd that this show was roughly the fourth time she’d booked Dahlstrom for a gig there: if that’s not instant cred, nothing is. As you would expect, there have been plenty of other excellent shows there in recent months. Sweet Soubrette, the more pop-oriented project of singer/ukulele player Ellia Bisker (who has a murderously good new album with the creepy Charming Disaster, her duo with Kotorino‘s Jeff Morris, due out shortly) swung through to play a stripped-down trio set. The highlight of that one was the eerily glimmering Burning City, an evocation of the bombing and subsequent firestorms in WWII Berlin.
Greg Cornell of the Cornell Brothers played a fascinating duo set there. What an interesting, and original, and excellent guitarist this guy is. Few other players rely on the low strings as much, and as imaginatively, and tunefully, as this guy does. His style is somewhere between bluegrass flatpicking and janglerock, and it’s completely his own. It helps that his songs are as anthemic and catchy as they are.
Another individualistic act, folk noir duo Mark Rogers and Mary Byrne – whose debut album I Line My Days Along Your Weight has been burning up the internet lately – got the call to pinch-hit for an act who’d cancelled, and hit one out of the park with their hypnotically moody, allusively lyrical songs. Byrne switched between guitar and a vintage mandolin, singing with a wary, carefully modulated, wounded delivery as Rogers nonchalantly aired out a deep and equally considered mix of classic blues, folk and bluegrass licks that merged seamlessly into Byrne’s somber, crepuscular narratives.
There seem to be two Caitlin Bells playing music in New York these days; purist oldtime Americana singer Caitlin Marie Bell is the talented one. She shares a pensive, rustic quality with Rogers and Byrne, mining the classic folk repertoire from the 1800s for her all-too-brief solo acoustic set there. Her high, resonant vocals soared over her nimble guitar fingerpicking as she made her way through warmly bucolic, Appalachian flavored front porch material along with a couple of darker, more incisive, blues-infused numbers.
Another purist folk musician from a completely different idiom, Pete Rushefsky played a rapturous, often exhilarating, glistening set there a few weeks later. His axe is the tsimbl, the pointillistically rippling, otherworldly Ukraininan Jewish hammered dulcimer that’s the forerunner of the Hungarian cimbalom and the western European zither. The first part of his set featured him leading a trio with two violins leaping and dancing against the tsimbl’s lush undercurrent; the second featured his wife doubling on flute and vocals, delivering several obscure treats from the Ukraininan folk tradition. What’s especially interesting about Rushefsky’s songbook is that much of it sounds completely different fom the boisterous, carnivalesque Romany-flavored klezmer music from points further west: this was both more somber and lustrous.
Where Rushefsky worked a pensive, hypnotic ambience, Sharon Goldman was her usual direct self: the acoustic rock tunesmith can say more in a few words than most people can in a whole album. She can also be drop-dead funny, although this time out her set was more about painting pictures, whether an unexpectedly triumphant late summer Park Slope scenario, or the ominous foreshadowing of the morning of 9/11…or a coy couple competing over a pint of ice cream. Goldman bought them to life with catchy chord changes on the guitar and her richly modulated, subtly nuanced vocals.
And Ewen booked a pretty perfect choice for Halloween: Jessi Robertson. She’s got an unearthly wail to rival anyone, and this time out had made herself up as a bloody corpse or accident victim or something similarly gruesome. So when she cut loose with “You’re gonna burn, my love,” on the chorus of the first song on her excellent new album, it worked on every conceivable level. And after she’d done a few similarly harrowing numbers, going off-mic and singing without any amplification, she did a cruelly funny country song with a title something along the lines of I Hope I Hurt You As Much As You Hurt Me.
Goldman, like so many others in the vanguard of acoustic music, likes house concerts: her next one is in Jersey City on Jan 25 at 8 PM, email for info. Sweet Soubrette are at Freddy’s on Jan 22. And the American Folk Art Museum’s free, 5:30 PM Friday concert series resumes on Jan 9 with first-class, politically-fueled lyricist and anthemic folk-rock songwriter Niall Connolly headlining at around half past six.