New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: richard thompson

Another Withering Lyrical Rock Masterpiece by Ward White

It’s time we put Ward White up there in the pantheon with Elvis Costello, Richard Thompson, Rachelle Garniez, Steve Wynn, Ray Davies and any other first-ballot hall of famer you can think of. Over the last fifteen years or so, the now LA-based White been on a creative tear to rival any one of those songwriting icons. Bowie’s work in the 70s is a good comparison, although where the Thin White Duke would reinvent himself just about every year, White has crystallized a classic three-minute janglerock sound, often veering off to the psychedelic side. 

Lyrically speaking, nobody writes more compelling, allusively macabre narratives. The devil is always in the details: in this case, the crack in the porcelain, the kind of soap in the bathroom, the objects on either side of where the dead bird has fallen out of the sky. White’s 2013 release Bob got the pick for best album of the year here, but that might just as easily be said for anything he’s put out since, including his latest one, Diminish, streaming at Bandcamp. As usual, White keeps his songs short, everything less than five minutes, some less than three. White plays all the guitars, elegantly and tersely, joined by keyboardist Tyler Chester and the low-key rhythm section of bassist John Spiker and drummer Mark Stepro.

It opens with Titans, its plotline as inscrutable as its melody is straightforward and hard-hitting. Twin guitar leads roar up to a menacing, chromatic chorus: it’s one of White’s louder numbers. An infant’s death and a possible terrorist attack may be related, or just parallel events. “This is no time for dreams,” is the mantra: welcome to the end of the teens, USA.

Noise on 21, a punchy backbeat anthem with blippy organ, is a classic White urban tableau, the yuppies upstairs staying up late just to seal another sordid deal while the narrator reaches breaking point: “Some things that you should never see are happy in the shadows, now it’s time to go home.”

Back to the End, with its cruelly Beatlesque chorus-box guitar, is a throwback to White’s late 60s psych-pop period a few years ago, a characteristically allusive, twisted scenario tracing the ugly logic of a S&M scenario: “Cannibals don’t waste their time with darkening the roux.”

Canopy, a brief, catchy number with uneasily warpy 80s synth, is one of the more unselfconsciously poetic songs in White’s catalog, contemplating endings from contrasting viewpoints

Awash in jangle and starry synth orchestration, Flood paints a grim picture of dysfunction on a Hollywood film set, with a shout to Baudelaire:

Send a dozen roses up to Noah’s favorite failures
Don’t believe the rumors of a plague upon this town
This bar never closes and it’s filled with drunken sailors
For every one, an albatross who should have let him drown

Watch the Hands is the great lost track from Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces: “Your best laid plans will never bite you in the ass unless your turn your back and leave them starving,” the child killer taunts.

With White’s lingering, detfly textured guitar multitracks, Cowboy could be the most gorgeous, bittersweetly surreal number here. It’s White’s La Chute:

Tell Bob I’m not busy being born, or dying, just alive
Some flights leave too early out of Kennedy
And some pricks play the Castro card for years

White puts a fresh spin on an old myth in Sodom, bristling with Syd Barrett-ish changes, sardonic backing vocals and glammy guitars.

Some call us sacrilegious
The chafed and the chosen few
You polish your barnyard idol
I’ll tarnish the ewe

Alternately balmy and burning, Every Night I Have This Dream is another of the murder ballads White is unsurpassed at – it’s not clear whether this is really a dream or not:

Double nickels all the way
I can’t afford to lose the day
They pop that trunk trunk and we are done, and I’m not going out that way

White puts a sinister edge on a mashup of blithe Bacharach 60s bossa-pop and watery, artsy Beatlesque jangle in Uncle Bob (Akron), the album’s most corrosively cynical number. That’s hardly a surprise, considering it’s a tale from the campaign trail told by the manager of a candidate who turns out to be something less than ideal

The album’s final cut is The Living End, a somber, mostly acoustic portrait of defeat as harrowingly detailed as Richard Thompson’s Withered and Died:

Buried with your artifacts
Pharaoh’s favorite son
Too late to think of what you’ll do with what you’ve done

You’ll see this in a few days on the best albums of 2018 page.

Harrowing Levels of Meaning in Rose Thomas Bannister’s Psychedelic Art-Rock Masterpiece

The best album of 2018 is also one of the shortest. Singer/multi-instrumentalist Rose Thomas Bannister’s third full-length release, Ambition – streaming at Bandcamp – has enormous relevance in an era of narcisssism run amok. She has never sung more subtly or written with more acerbic, sometimes venomous levels of meaning than she does here. Strings and horns in places add both orchestral lushness and smoky jazz flavor to the five constantly shapeshifting, psychedelic tracks. They rank with the A-side of any great lyrical rock record ever made: Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces, Richard & Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights, Hannah vs. the Many’s Ghost Stories…and for sheer musical ambition and imaginative orchestration, ELO’s Eldorado.

This is a high-concept album, commissioned for a dance production of Macbeth. Reduced to simplest terms – a dangerous thing to do with Bannister’s work – it’s about violence and understanding its motivations, and its perpetrators. She quotes liberally from Shakespeare, but neither the songs nor the suite as a whole follow the narrative of the play. Betrayal is an ever-present, seething undercurrent.

The title track opens as ominous waltz, with a creepy flurry of guitars – Bob Bannister’s distantly wary Strat along with the bandleader’s steady acoustic:

Star fires
Don’t look at my desires
Bright eye
Don’t look at my hands
Sharp knives
See not the wound it makes
Until i get what’s mine

As the song shifts into a slow, hypnotic 5/4 groove, Greg Talenfeld’s grimacing, contorted lead guitar moves to the forefront, in contrast to the vitriolic elegance of the vocals.

Gary Foster’s drums and Matthew Stein’s bass shift from a wary stroll to tensely circling triplets as Banquo’s Book picks up steam. Susan Alcorn’s pedal steel adds big-sky ambience to this metaphorically loaded saga of birdwatching and then escape:

The moon is getting burnt out
It looks like rain
I stated my opinion
I was never afraid
What time is it my son
Why don’t you hang onto this gun
I don’t believe in fate
But if you can get away I’ll guard the gate

William for the Witches is the album’s most overtly Shakespearean and psychedelic track, opening with sinister theatricality and closing with a surreal exchange of voices, echoing X as much as Arthur Lee:

It’s so easy to make them go crazy
So fun to watch them go to town
So much fun to watch them mow each other down

The jaunty As Birds Do is not about what you might imagine, this being inspired by the Bard and his dirty mind Alcorn’s steel adds surreal Tex-Mex flavor, Erik Lawrence’s gruff sax paired against Steven Levi’s bright cornet for extra sarcasm:

All is the fear, nothing is the love
Little is the wisdom when he fires away
Go back to school yourself
Tell me what is noble, tell me what’s judicious
In these faceless days

The coda, and key to the story is Lady M. which begins broodingly and then rises to another faux-mariachi interlude. The symbolism is murderous:

Have you eaten of the root?
My mother
That takes reason prisoner
Have you swallowed
The bitter pages?
You spurred them on

When Bob Bannister’s sotto-voce vocals loom in low on the next line, “Your children will be kings,” the vengeful sarcasm reaches new levels. Don’t ever, ever mess with a songwriter. You can brutalize them, fight them in court, even steal their children, but they always get even in the end. Rose Thomas Bannister’s next gig is January 19 at 8 PM on a a twinbill at the Jalopy with Americana songstress Erin Durant and Philly Goat

Witheringly Lyrical, Relevant Acoustic Rock Intensity with the Rails at the Mercury

Let’s say you’re the daughter of the guy who might be both the greatest rock songwriter and the greatest rock guitarist of alltime. And your mother is generally considered to be the greatest British folksinger of the past century. And you decide not to go into, say, architecture or film or visual art. Instead, you go into music. And marry one of the greatest lead guitarists of your own generation. Career suicide waiting to happen, right?

Hardly. Kami Thompson has her dad Richard’s withering sense of humor, her mom’s looks and a voice which, while it would be ridiculously unfair to compare to Linda Thompson’s shattering, poignant instrument, is every bit as haunting in its own right. Wednesday night at the Mercury, she and her guitarslinger husband James Walbourne – the core of British folk-rock duo the Rails – spun a shimmering, rippling web of vocals and guitar that transcended that spare format.

Playing lead and sharing vocals, Walbourne waited until four songs into the set before he really cut loose and went for the jugular with spiraling volleys of notes, infused with equal parts blues, Britfolk and the Byrds. Throughout the show, it was as if there was a guitar orchestra onstage: the way the two interweave and fill out each others’ melodies creates a lush thicket of sound that sounds like a lot more than just two acoustic guitars.

The best song of the set was hardly a surprise. The duo couldn’t have played a more appropriate song for the Lower East Side of New York in 2018 than title track of the duo’s latest album There Are Other People In  This World, Not Just You. Kami sang that with a mix of battle fatigue, resilience and seething anger, amplified by her husband’s low harmonies as he flung icepick riffs against the melody. Earlier in the set, Walbourne had lamented the closure of longtime neighborhood watering hole Max Fish (which has since reopened a few blocks away with completely different ambience and clientele). And underscored that exasperation with the blitzkrieg of speculator-fueled destruction with a snarling take of The Cally, a desperate, embittered reminiscence of Caledonian Road British dive bar revelry in the age of luxury condos that aren’t even built for habitation.

With the plaintively lilting Willow Tree, a mutatingly bucolic instrumental and then a rather grim take of the old exile tale Australia, the duo gave a musically purist if sardonic nod to the “songs that were passed down to us,” as Kami said with almost a grimace. Much as their roots encompass centuries worth of traditional sounds, they’re most at home doing their own songs. She finally took her voice to the rafters as the angst-fueled Late Surrender peaked out. Walbourne offered his own take of relationship hell with Dark Times, a harmony-fueled tale of an affair that was doomed from the start.

While Walbourne is obviously influenced by Richard Thompson – who was in the crowd, watching closely and approvingly – he doesn’t mimic any of the master’s familiar wild bends, Middle Eastern allusions or long, volcanic crescendos. Walbourne’s lead guitar work with the Pretenders is more conventional, but his role in this project is as much orchestrator as fretburner. And his wife is no slouch on the guitar, either, although she didn’t launch into any of her husband’s sidewinding spirals, leaping Celtic phrases or any of his starkly sparkly open-tuned blues, her fingerpicking was nimble and nuanced. A good crowd for a weekday night roared for a second encore following the duo’s stately, rainy-day closing number, but time was up.

This was the last stop on the Rails’ American tour, but they’re likely to be back; watch this space.

British Folk-Rock Supergroup The Rails’ Brilliant New Album Chronicles Real Estate Bubble-Era Hell

The Rails are as much of a supergroup as you could possibly want, on every front. With withering contempt for speculators and the plague of gentrification that continues to decimate urban areas throughout the western world and beyond, this band jangle and clang with the kind of purist tunefulness you would expect considering their pedigree. The sonics are luscious beyond belief: guitarist James Walbourne’s attack ranges from gentle acoustic filigrees to electric slings and arrows punctuated by equal parts scream and slither.

The core of the group also includes Walbourne’s singer wife Kami Thompson (daughter of Linda and Richard Thompson) with Son Volt’s Jim Boquist on bass and the North Mississippi Allstars’ Cody Dickinson on drums. Their album Other People – as in “There are other people in this world, not just you” – is streaming at Spotify. They’re playing the Mercury on July 25 at 7 PM. Cover is $20; if smart, fearlessly relevant songwriting is your thing, don’t miss them.

The album opens with the bitter, brooding ballad The Cally, a slowly unwinding, imagistic tale of a seedy bar under siege amid wretched real estate bubble excess. Walbourne muses about how refreshing it is to see a prostitute still out there, typical of the crushing irony in many of these songs.

Thompson sings the tensely pulsing breakup anthem Late Surrender, bubbling over with Walbourne’s spiky, lingering Strat work, up to a tantalizingly brief solo out. With her resolute, low-key vocals, the album’s title track is as apt a smack upside the head of yuppie narcissists as anyone’s written this year:

Take the candy
Steal the money
Pull the blind down
Kick the dog

Walbourne seethes and grits his teeth through the slowly waltzing Drowned In Blue, Thompson just slightly more restrained over the lushly textured, watery guitars and stinging steel. The guitar multitracks are just as rich but more spare and acoustic in Hanging On, which works just as well as a requiem for a relationship as for a burnt-out freedom fighter.

For a minute it seems like Walbourne’s narrator in Dark Times got a raw deal with the richkid cokehead girlfriend, but there’s more to the story – and a delicious Farfisa organ break that gives way to a typically searing guitar solo. Shame, a drunkard’s lament, has a more upbeat Britfolk feel.

Thompson’s voice rises plaintively in Leaving the Land, a wounded, defeatedly waltzing ballad with a cynically roaring Celtic dance midway through. It sets up the album’s big bombshell, Brick and Mortar, which might be the best song of 2018. Over a savage minor-key strut, Walbourne paints a grim picture of one historic district after another being destroyed as working people get displaced:

I can’t hear the beat on Denmark Street
Silenced by the sound of mute concrete
And it’s never coming back
Just another luxury flat
It’s farewell to all of London’s brick and mortar

“Why does evil taste so sweet? Leads you down a dead-end street,” Thompson muses to complete the trilogy in yet another pensive waltz, Mansion of Happiness, set to Walbourne’s black widow web of guitars and mandolin. The group stay in 3/4 time throughout Australia, a mutedly cynical would-be escape tale, then add a fourth beat to the measure in the stark, doomed, Everly Brothers-tinged I Wish, I Wish.

Willow Tree is an unexpectedly successful detour toward oldschool American C&W. The album winds up with the aching Low Expectations: “There must be something more than this,” Walbourne broods. He’s done plenty of memorable lead guitar work with the Pretenders and Ray Davies but this is his masterpiece so far. And it’s also a high-water mark for Thompson as standard bearer of a mighty songwriting legacy.

Dori Freeman Brings Her Eclectic, Tasteful Americana to the Lower East Side

The big news about Dori Freeman’s second album, Letters Never Read – streaming at NPR – is that Richard Thompson plays on it. The song where he makes a cameo bristling with his signature, shivery, incisive Strat lines, is actually pretty slight, if tastefully assembled by Thompson’s son Teddy.

Much as it takes nerve to ask Richard Thompson to play on your album, it takes even more to cover the iconic Richard & Linda Thompson anthem I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight. OK, it’s not the original, but Freeman’s version does it justice, with some clever psychedelic touches. The rest of the album is more trad, and mines the same diverse Americana styles she explored in her debut album last year. And for what it’s worth, it’s somewhat less gloomy.. She’s playing the big room at the Rockwood this Thursday, Oct 19 at 8:15 PM; cover is $12.

Freeman gets a lot of props for her voice, and she’s earned that: it wouldn’t be overhype to compare her subtle, curlicuing blue notes in the second track, Just Say It Now, to Laura Cantrell. The pulsing country soul of Lovers on the Run brings to mind early 70s Melba Montgomery – Freeman gives it a more wintry delivery over Nick Falk’s almost martial drumbeat and Roy Williams’ steady piano chords:

I’ve looked into another’s eyes
When all the world was still
And just as I began to fall
They went in for the kill

From there Freeman mixes it up. With Alex Hargreaves and Duncan Wickel on austere fiddles, Cold Waves has a hazy, slowly vamping 70s Britfolk ambience, perhaps due to the Thompsons’ presence here. Freeman sings the bouncy Roger Miller-ish bluegrass tune Ern & Zorry’s Sneakin’ Bitin’ Dog a-cappella; Falk switches to banjo for the similarly retro, trickily syncopated take of the country gospel tune Over There.

Is that tubular bells, or one of those portable organs that Thompson likes to use, on the spare singalong Turtle Dove? Both, maybe? Likewise, the kiss-off anthem That’s All Right has a similar, muted nocturnal atmosphere, blending Jon Graboff’s spare steel guitar with piano and layers of guitar. It’s not clear who’s playing what: Neal Casal and Kacy & Clayton also contribute to the album. It winds up with a wry vocal-and-drums cover of Jim Reeves’ Yonder Comes a Sucker. If you go for eclectic Americana tunesmithing, purist playing, an unselfconsciously nuanced voice and lyrics that jump out and bite you when least expected, Dori Freeman is for you.

Acoustic Guitarslinger R.D. King Brings His Richly Intertwining, Melodic Instrumentals to NYC

First there was B.B. Then there was Albert, then Freddie. And now there’s R.D., the latest in a line of first-class guitar-playing Kings. Difference is that R.D. King plays acoustic, and that his style is not blues but his own intricate, meticulous instrumental material that could be called pastoral psychedelia or cinematic folk. Either way, it’s a hell of a lot more energetic and epic than most music for the acoustic guitar.

King is bound to get comparisons to a whole slew of fingerstyle players who use unorthodox or open tunings – John Renbourn, Bert Jansch, Adrian Legg, Leo Kottke and John Fahey are all in the mix – but if there’s any current-day artist he brings to mind, it’s David Grubbs, who’s more of a Strat guy. This particular King’s album RD King vs. Self  is streaming at Soundcloud, and for anybody who wants to see his fingers fly up and down the fretboard, he’s playing the small room at the Rockwood on August 19 at 6 PM. Then the following night he’s at Pine Box Rock Shop at 9:30.

His technique is spectacular, employing all kinds of harmonics, hammer-ons, pull-offs, flurrying upper-register clusters and contrastingly terse, precise basslines – and as many notes as this guy plays, he doesn’t waste them. The album’s first track is Lightness of Being, set to a rapidfire triplet rhythm. With its web of overdubs and subtly shifting center, it’s as if Fahey and Renbourn conspired to write their own Twin Peaks theme, but closer to waterfalling folk than noir cinematics. The Precipice is a stormy blend of flamenco and a 60s hotrod theme, while the pensive, propulsively waltzing, attractively summery title track hints at acoustic Pink Floyd, 60s American folk and Scottish highland balladry.

Heartstring, a gorgeously wistful song without words, brings to mind what Richard Thompson could do turbocharging a sad Jimmy Webb ballad. There Are No Young Forests comes across as a verdant, enigmatic counterpart to Grubbs’ vast electric deep-space tableaux. The uneasy Vertigo continues on a long, subtly crescendoing tangent, sparkling with harmonics, followed by the tight, emphatic variations of Luminescence.

The album winds up with the tidally shifting vamps of Twilight, rising to a bristling peak, and then the sparkly, cascading An End to Wandering. If you play guitar and feel stuck in a rut, listening to this guy will get you unstuck in a hurry.

Erica Smith Brings Her Poignant, Spectacular Voice and Eclectically Shattering Songs to the East Village

Erica Smith is one of New York’s most distinctive and often harrowing voices in folk noir and Americana. But even in this city, Smith’s ability to shift effortlessly from style to style is pretty spectacular. In addition to performing her own music, she’s currently a member of both the Richard Thompson cover group the Shootout Band – in which she puts her own stamp on Linda Thompson’s vocals – and also the explosive gospel-rock band Lizzie and the Sinners. Smith can belt a blues ballad or deliver a plaintive Appalachian narrative with anyone. And she’s also a versatile jazz stylist. Her latest album, a jazz recording with her band the 99 Cent Dreams, is One for My Baby, streaming at Spotify. She’s got a gig coming up on an excellent twinbill at Hifi Bar on May 10 at 7:30 PM; similarly lyrical and somewhat sunnier Americana singer Rebecca Turner follows at around 8:30 PM.

There’s a tragic backstory here: as it turned out, this was the final recording by the great New York drummer Dave Campbell. Perhaps best known for his serpentine, turn-on-a-dime work with psychedelic rock band Love Camp 7, Campbell was also a terrific swing jazz player with a flair for Brazilian grooves, which comes across vividly on the more upbeat tunes here. This is a collection of counterintuitive versions of standards recorded with rock band instrumentation – electric guitar, bass, drums and Leif Arntzen’s soulful muted trumpet on two numbers – along with an obscure treasure by one of this era’s great lit-rock songwriters. It opens with The Very Thought of You, where Smith distinguishes her version from the famous Billie Holliday take with her inscrutable delivery, growing more playfully optimistic as she goes along. Guitarist Dann Baker (also of Love Camp 7) mashes up Barney Kessel and Wes Montgomery as he follows Smith’s emotional trajectory.

Interestingly, there are a couple of songs commonly associated with Sinatra here. Smith does I Could Write a Book as ebullient, optimistic swing: the song feels like it’s about jump out of its shoes, but Smith holds it in check over a slightly ahead-of-the-beat bassline And she does the title track a tad faster than the Ol’ Blue Eyes original, echoing the bartender’s desire to call it a night as much as the wee-hours angst of the lyrics, Baker with her every step of the way through an alternately woozy and vividly brooding interpretation.

She does Rodgers and Hart’s It Never Entered My Mind as lingering, noir-tinged torch jazz, Baker’s gracefully stately chordal ballet in tandem with Campbell’s tersely slinky 6/8 groove. Smith’s careful, minutely jeweled, woundedly expressive vocals mine every ounce of ironic, biting subtext in the lyrics. Ain’t Misbehavin’ gets a hushed low-key swing treatment that builds to coyly nonchalant optimism, Arntzen’s trumpet following suit.

Campbell’s artfully acrobatic tumble opens Everything I’ve Got as an altered bossa before the band swings it by the tail, Smith leading the group on a long upward trajectory that far outpaces the Blossom Dearie original. The album’s most shattering track is a desolate, rainswept take of Cry Me a River, Baker shifting Kessel’s lingering lines further into the shadows over Campbell’s low-key, sepulchrally minimalistic brushwork. The band does the first recorded version of Livia Hoffman’s Valentine as a slow swing tune: “What are childhood crushes for? For crushing all your dreams forevermore,” Smith intones in a knowing, wounded mezzo-soprano. The album winds up with a wryly good-naturedly suspenseful, rainforest-swing solo take of Campbell’s drums on Everything I’ve Got: just wait til the hip-hop nation finds out that this exists. Throughout the record, Smith’s disarmingly direct, imaginative, emotionally vivid phrasing breathes new life into songs that other singers sometimes phone in, reason alone to give this a spin if classic jazz is your thing.

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.

Pete Kennedy Releases a Great, Genuine New York Rock Record

Pete Kennedy is best known as half of celebrated art-folk duo the Kennedys, and one of the world’s great guitarists. Much as he has Richard Thompson-class chops and taste, Kennedy is also a first-rate songwriter. His latest album, Heart of Gotham, is streaming at Spotify. Together with his wife Maura, the Kennedys are playing the album release show tonight at around 9 at Bowery Electric on a killer triplebill with cult favorite Americana songwriter Rebecca Turner opening the night at 7, then another brilliant husband-wife duo, Tracy Island playing the album release show for their new one War No More (see yesterday’s writeup). Cover is a ridiculously cheap $9.

Two things distinguish this album. First, it’s a true solo effort: Pete Kennedy plays all the instruments, drums included. Secondly, it’s a song cycle, sort of the rock equivalent of Russell Shorto‘s classic New York history, Island at the Center of the World. Much as the idea of celebrating the many ethnicities who’ve made this city such a gorgeous melting pot might seem daunting – and potentially mawkish, and painfully P.C. – Kennedy pulls it off. Lyrically, the album is rich with historical references: people, places and drama from across the centuries. Musically, the obvious influence is an iconic New Yorker, Lou Reed, although the songs also ring with the celtic-tinged flair of the king of the downtown New York anthem, Willie Nile. The album begins and ends in Union Square, “a soapbox where streets tell their story,” as Kennedy puts it.

Tue to its title, The Bells Rang is a feast of jangly rock textures, a shout-out to resilience and triumph in hardscrabble Harlem. Williamsburg Bridge, counterintuitively and aptly salutes the Hispanic and Jewish communities that still cling to their turf on the south side of the neighborhood even as it’s overrun with yuppies, overpriced prefab condos and curated locavore tweetopia boites. And while the title of Never Stopped Believin’ might leave you with an “ew, Journey!” grimace, the optimism of its road-warrior narrative channels both Willie Nile and Woody Guthrie.

Likewise, with its web of mandolins and almost bagpipe-like waves of guitar, Unbreakable triumphantly reflects on the generations of Irish artisans who built so much of this city. Rise Above leaves the New York milieu behind for more pensive, personal ground, then People Like Me brings that idea around, a powerful reminder of how artistic communities aren’t just essential to a great city: that’s where people find their soulmates.

Harken, with its luscious layers of twelve-string guitar, is part Byrds, part Buddy Holly. The bittersweetly shuffling Asphodel references the latter of those artists as well as the mythological Greek purgatory. Riot in Bushwick refers not to police brutality but to a raid on a rockabilly shindig; it’s a launching pad for Kennedy’s bottomless bag of vintage 50s riffs.

New York reaches for art-rock majesty in the same vein as the Church, Kennedy’s guitar atmospherics evoking Peter Koppes at his stratospheric best. The album hits a peak with its most majestic anthem, Gotham Serenade – it’s not the only place where Kennedy quotes from Richard Thompson’s Wall of Death.

If all this seems like it romanticizes this city, consider that the songs on the album date from the previous decade and possibly before: the current era’s never-ending brain drain, and the devastation of all sorts of communities in a blitzkrieg of gentrification, aren’t addressed here. So consider this a fond look back at a past that’s just a few years behind us, even if it seems like a millenium away…and also a measure of hope for better days ahead after the real estate bubble bursts.

Richard Thompson Reinvents His Brooding Acoustic Classics in Newark

It’s often been argued that Richard Thompson is not only the greatest guitarist but also the greatest songwriter in the history of rock. Year after year, he continues to validate that claim. This past evening in the sonically magnificent confines of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in downtown Newark, Thompson revitalized a mix of darkly glimmering folk-rock favorites from the 60s through the present decade, along with a trio of new songs that reaffirmed the iconic songwriter’s presence in the pantheon. Heavy praise earned by a heavy guy, philosophically speaking, anyway.

Plenty of bandleaders will do an occasional solo acoustic tour for the sake of putting a fresh spin on old material…or for the sake of some perceived intimacy with the audience (which only works if the lyrics are strong)…or to max out the bottom line since there’s no band to pay. Thompson, on the other hand, has at least two fully arranged versions of probably most of the songs in his vast back catalog, one electric and one acoustic, and probably other alternates as well. Like most of his contemporaries from the 60s and 70s English folk revival, he’s always had a thing for unusual guitar tunings, but he’s taken that obsession to a new level, and the songs with it. The result is richly layered internal harmonies that are as sophisticated as Bach and if anything enhance the succinctness and catchiness of his tunes. At this solo acoustic show, one prime example was I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, an eager, cheery folk-pop number in its original 1974 incarnation with Thompson’s ex-wife Linda on harmonies. Live, in a new tuning and without the bvox, it took on an unexpected gravitas that meshed especially well with the other material.

Which can be pretty grim. Thompson opened with Stony Ground, a pretty savage dig at an old goat who can’t manage to keep his overexcited, um, imagination zipped. He followed with an aptly sepulchral take of The Ghost of You Walks and revisited that haunted atmosphere with I Misunderstood at the end of his roughly 75-minute set. Revenge took centerstage in the deliciously vicious, anthemic Good Things Happen to Bad People and later in Fergus Lang, an excoriatingly funny portrait of a robber baron developer (who very, very closely resembles Donald Trump) who buys off the local powers that be in order to desecrate the countryside with golf courses and the like. The tune became even funnier in context after Thompson played a few bars of the dirty old Scottish folk song that inspired it.

The new material was characteristically vivid and eclectic: Josephine, a brooding minor-key portrait of a woman who isn’t completely together to begin with and is slowly losing what she has left; One Door Opens, a stark, rustically rhythmic number that harks back to Thompson’s roots; and a resonantly bittersweet portrait of Amsterdam. Thompson also did rousing takes of obligatory fan favorites including the lickety-split robber ballad Vincent Black Lightning, and The Wall of Death, his defiantly classic anthem about living at full emotional throttle, no matter what the cost. That one had some highwire, raga-esque soloing, as did the opening number, along with Read About Love, a sarcastic look back at 50s British sexual mores and their ugly consequences.

Otherwise, this show was about going as deeply into the songs as possible and wringing out their intensity, through the Newcastle gothic of Black Leg Miner (a fiercely pro-union song), the sardonic sea chantey Johnny’s Faraway on the Rolling Sea and an unexpected treat, a newly arranged take of Sandy Denny’s Fairport Convention classic Who Knows Where the Time Goes. Throughout the set, Thompson subtly varied his tones and timbres, coloring them with watery tremolo and judicious use of reverb and delay. And he’s never sung better, especially strong in the low registers.

A word about the venue: nice place! It’s about half the size of the Town Hall, with pristine acoustics, comfortable seating, pleasantly laid-back and helpful staff, and it’s just a brief five-minute walk from the Path train. Door-to-door home from the train station, in this case, took under an hour (admittedly, jumping on the F just as it was leaving the station was a big help)