New York Music Daily

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Tag: singer-songwriter

LJ Murphy Gets Scary and Relevant at Sidewalk This Saturday at 7

Did they kill you with kindness?
Did they drown you in shame?
Was it voluntary blindness?
Do you remember your name?
From Panic City to your hometown

As usual, LJ Murphy was dressed to kill. Black suit, porkpie hat, splashy tie, big black guitar like the one Johnny Cash played. His eyes widened with a gleeful “I told you so,” over drummer Jacob Cavell’s shimmying Stax/Volt shuffle, lead guitarist Tommy Hoscheid adding a snarling little curlicue at the end of his vintage Memphis soul licks. Bassist Nils Sorensen was on tour with his other band, Brothers Moving, so Murphy was doing the White Stripes thing instead. This was on a Saturday night earlier this summer at Sidewalk, where Murphy will be with this dangerously erudite band this coming Saturday night, September 12 at 7 PM. These guys take fifty years of the dark side of blues and soul and bring them into the era of the Great Destruction in New York. And hopefully beyond.

Did you read the directions?
Are you making a list?
Did you pass the inspection?
Was there something you missed?
From Panic City to your hometown

Murphy’s hip cracked like a whip as he signaled for a change. This band knows their James Brown, their Charles Brown too, and they responded in a split second. Hoscheid played with just a tinge more distortion, more fire as this cautionary tale shifted from 9/11 to 3/11:

Will you hide in the darkness
Til the enemy’s gone?
Will you remember the password
When the pressure is on?
‘Cause your hair is on fire
And your eyes are insane
Can you cover up the damage
From the poisonous rain?
From Panic City to your hometown

Murphy is Queens born and raised. He was here on both of those dates, and he was paying attention, and making it impossible not to pay attention to this song. His voice part rasp, part bluesy shout, part croon, he raised his guitar, then brought it down like a cleaver as the band spiraled and careened into the last couple of bars. It’s impossible to imagine an outsize personality like Murphy – or at least one with substance to match – coming out of gentrifier Bushwick or Bed-Stuy or wherever those parasites have most recently been spotted. One can only wonder how many other LJ Murphys might be toiling in dives in Montclair, or Akron, or Buffalo, who twenty years ago would have hightailed it for New York at the first opportunity, but these days are cursed to stay put – rather than opening for Murphy and making the night a doubleheader instead of an evening where you run for the exit after the last pitch is fired.

Cleopatra Degher Plays One of This Summer’s Most Enjoyably Catchy Shows at the Rockwood

Acoustic songstress Cleopatra Degher played one of the year’s funniest and most quietly devastating songs at her show at the Rockwood last month. It was a catchy, cheery little tune titled Rebecca Wood. See, Rebecca sometimes wonders what it would be like to be alone. But as Degher told it, she never is. “She gets to know all her friends on Facebook through all the pictures that they took.” The crowd didn’t start to chuckle until after the second chorus, but by then Degher had made her point.

The San Diego-based songwriter spent much of her childhood in Sweden. She’s still relatively young (early 20s), a nimble and very eclectic guitarist, has a way with a catchy, anthemic tune and sings in a strong, determined mezzo-soprano, informed by all sorts of oldtimey folk and Appalachian music as well as more current sounds. Auspiciously, her set was mostly new material along with a few numbers from her most recent album Pacific (streaming at Bandcamp). She opened with I Saw the Sky, her fast fingers picking a flurry on the strings up to one of her signature anthemic choruses. She followed with Nothing to Worry About Now, a driving, sparkling mountain music-inspired number.

Her agile hammer-ons and dynamic shifts, up to doublespeed and back, propelled Burden of Tomorrow. Keep on Moving, inspired by the long winters she endured in Sweden, blended hints of a Grateful Dead classic into its optimistic crescendos, a springboard for Degher’s steely upper register. Nothing But a River was as stunningly and bittersweetly hopeful as it was anthemic, Degher reaching back for all the force she could muster on the chorus. It was almost as she was going to use sheer force of will to make sure this relationship would go somewhere instead of falling through right at the start.

By contrast, Shame had more of a shuffling oldtimey feel, but once again hit a towering peak on the chorus: Degher can deliver a lot more raw energy than most musicians who employ just guitar and vocals. She also did a stately waltz written by her dad, Darius Degher, as well as a high-voltage cover of Ring of Fire. She spends a lot of time on the road: let’s hope she makes it back to town sooner than later.

Rachelle Garniez Stuns and Seduces the Crowd at Pangea

Many cognoscenti in the New York music scene consider Rachelle Garniez the best songwriter in town, and some would argue that she she might simply be the best songwriter anywhere. A couple of nights ago at Pangea she bolstered that argument, playing to a rapt and wildly appreciative hometown crowd in a duo show with bassist Tim Luntzel. Despite having to sit because he was in a walking cast, he supplied terse, elegantly elastic lines to anchor Garniez’s acerbic, erudite, occasionally feral playing as she alternated between acoustic guitar, accordion and piano.

As a performer, Garniez is devastatingly funny, although her songs often pack a wallop that comes from the opposite end of the emotional spectrum. One of her favorite tropes is to introduce them via slow, contemplative, frequently psychedelic intros that give her a launching pad for deviousy surrealist, deadpan humor that seems completely fresh and off-the-cuff but is actually more thoroughly composed than anyone realizes. What varies from show to show is the punchlines: it’s impossible to think of anyone who has as much fun flying without a net as Garniez.

And there’s always something relevant lurking behind the jokes. What seemed like it would be blissed-out musings on deep-forest beauty turned in a split second into caustic commentary on global warming…which then introduced a sly, vamping, bluesy stripper theme. That one she played on accordion, accenting the song with some unexpected horror on the low end and then a coyly sinister flatline motif at the very end. Likewise, she painted a dreamy early morning riverside scenario and then flipped the script, tying it into the perils of gentrification. That led into the metaphorically slashing if gently waltzing Tourmaline, the semi-precious gem in the title a metaphor for all things not quite perfect, or accepted, embellished with Garniez’s usual umpteem levels of meaning. As Garniez tells it, anyone who might dis you for having something in common with that stone “Is only just snow on your screen.”

Playing piano, she made the connection between Facebook and crack cocaine (Garniez is equally disdainful of both) in the gospel-tinged God’s Little Acre, an unrepentant kiss-off from a former party animal who’s been tracked down (or stalked) by a fling from a past decade. And in a bouncy, blackly amusing new one, just bass and vocals, she explained that at her funeral, she doesn’t want any ordinary Cadillac hearse: she wants an El Camino instead. How many other songwriters would identify a funeral flower car by its make and model, never mind using that image as a metaphor?

Beyond an irresistibly funny, sarcastically operatic shout-out to Jean-Claude Van Damme and his  endorsements for antidepressants, the best song of the night was a starkly baroque-tinged new guitar song inspired by her European tourmate Kyrie Kristmanson. Yet again, Garniez filled in the details of what would seemingly turn out to be a comfortable, sympathetic portrait of an old lady and her tchotchkes…but revealed the source of the money funding all the decor as “The bludgeon and blade.”

And she is New York to the core. Feeding off the crowd’s energy, she wound up the set with People Like You, which opens as an uneasiy and ambiguous Far Rockaway reminiscence, then takes on a blithe, boppy Rickie Lee Jones bounce before Garniez drops the artifice and bares her fangs, in a withering sendup of gentrifier status-grubbing:

It’s people like you who don’t know pride from shame
It’s people like you who always stay one step ahead of the game
It’s people like you who never place a face before a name

Then she quoted from Taylor Swift and brought down the house.

Garniez is just as fearless when it comes to having special guests: other vocalists might be intimidated by sharing the stage with singer Carol Lipnik and her otherworldly, soaring four-octave range, but not her. Lipnik and pianist Matt Kanelos delivered plenty of thrills with a spellbinding, melismatic take of Oh, the Tyranny, a hauntingly awestruck track from their new album Almost Back to Normal. A little later, torchy chanteuse Angela McCluskey provided some plaintive intensity of her own in a Billie Holiday-inspired diptych, pianist Paul Cantelon providing brilliant, Debussy-esque ripples and lustre.

Garniez has a long-awaited new album due out on November 13; her next gig is at Barbes on Sept 3 at 8 PM. Lipnik continues her weekly Thursday 7 PM residency at Pangea this month. And McCluskey and Cantelon debut their new dancefloor groove band, Saint Bernadette – with Garniez on accordion – tonight, August 26 at City Winery at 7.

Intense, Evocative, Ruggedly Individualistic Acoustic Americana from Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear

Kansas City duo Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear sound like no other band on the planet. They’re both a trip back to a land to a time forgot, and completely in the here and now. And their music is amazing. Forget for a sec that they may be darlings of NPR and the corporate media because they’re a mom and her kid making music together. Ohhhh, how sweeeet, right? No. Ruth Ward is a badass guitarist, so is her son Madisen. And their allusively erudite songs can be catchy beyond belief, distilled in two hundred years of front-porch folk, and country blues, and oldschool C&W and soul music. But while their influences may be retro, what they’re doing with them is something brand new and genuinely exciting. They haven’t played New York since an absolutely riveting invite-only show in the meatpacking district back in May; by the time they hit Joe’s Pub on July 27 at 7:30 PM, they’ll be a couple of days removed from the Newport Folk Festival, and then they’re off to a marathon European tour. Cover for the Joe’s Pub gig is $15 and advance tix are still available as of today, believe it or not.

Their new album Skeleton Crew is streaming at Spotify. The steady, bouncy but enigmatic opening track, Live by the Water, sets the tone for the rest of the album. On the surface, it’s told from the point of view of an older guy who can’t get enough simple pleasures…but is also all too aware of what he doesn’t have. The devil’s in the details everywhere here.

The monster hit waiting to happen is the ragtime-tinged Silent Movies, mother and son’s strums building a lush bed of guitars in perfect unison. Mom echoes son’s vocals; throughout the album, it’s impossible to tell who’s playing the spare lead lines, the two are so committed to staying on track, not overdoing it, simply reflecting a mood, or the storyline. This is deep stuff.

Modern Day Mystery has a careful, moody minor-key sway. “I could never leave this place gracefully,” Madisen explains casually, and then draws the listener in from there. “When I leave this house, I couldn’t disappear if I tried.”

The two weave a spiderweb of guitars on the delicately waltzing Dead Daffodils, a creepy, Faulknerian southern gothic tableau. Then they go back toward ragtime with Whole Lotta Problems and its droll, aphoristic call-and-response. Fight On rises from intricate and enigmatic to lush and sweeping, with a 70s soul-jazz tinge. By contrast, Big Yellow Taxi – an original, not the Joni Mitchell hit – is an irrepressibly bouncy, bittersweet portrait of a homeless guy.

Daisy Jane is the most musically lighthearted number here, followed by the most chillingly allusive one, Undertaker and Juniper. By the Wards’ reckoning, even executioners fall in love…and suffer the consequences. Down in Mississippi features stark cello along with terse guitar multitracks, a troubled Jim Crow-era tableau echoed in the understatedly majestic, gospel-tinged Sorrows and Woes. Be the first on your block to be able to brag that you discovered this inimitable duo.

Linda Draper Brings Her Subtly Savage Vocal and Lyrical Brilliance Back to the East Village

The most beautifully redemptive moment at any New York concert this year happened at Linda Draper‘s show at the Rockwood on the first of June. She and her subtle, intuitive, brilliant trio with bassist Jeff Eyrich and drummer Eric Puente decided to flip the script at the last moment and open with an oldschool C&W-tinged number, Modern Day Decay. “In a world full of assholes, it ain’t easy,” Draper sang, resonant and nonchalant, as the big crowd of young Republicans yakked it up, oblivious to the band onstage. Meanwhile, the waitress made her way through the crowd, furiously exchanging receipts: all the assholes were paying with their parents’ credit cards. And nobody listened.

When Draper – an elegant, warmly compelling presence whose stock in trade is lyrical wit and subtlety – hit the chorus, she fired off an unexpected flurry of guitar riffage, then took the song way down. “There’s a bar next door, you can go there if you want to talk,” she encouraged afterward. Within a couple of minutes, they’d disappeared, presumably into $1000 Uber cars back to Bushwick or New Jersey. Without missing a beat, she followed with Hollow, a starkly hypnotic Appalachian gothic number. “Can you get it out of your system before you grow cold and numb?” she challenged.

The next song was a rare treat. Time Will Tell is the wickedly catchy opening track on Draper’s debut album, and she seldom plays it, but she did here, and the rhythm section gave it a lowlit slink that underscored her woundedly catchy, subtly snide kiss-off lyric: “You are the shipwreck, I am the sea, you’re sinking through me.”

Draper brought an unexpected and stunning jazz-inflected sensibilty to the catchy 6/8 soul ballad Good As New – she’s been dipping deeper into her full, ripe lower register lately, and this was a prime example. “I’ve made a habit of staying on the outside,” she mused: it’s a song that Neko Case would be proud to have in her catalog. Draper and the band followed with the defiant backbeat anthem True Enough, echoing another individualistic American artist, Tift Merritt. “It’s just a flicker of the beam, a stitcher in the seam, the rest is a big fat lie.”

Ultimately, Draper doesn’t resemble anyone but herself. She and her rhythm section kept the lights low with Sleepwalkers, a bossa-tinged, bitterly catchy lament. “Even the purest of angels would crash and burn in a place like this,” she sang. She followed with the sardonically shuffling Broken Eggshell: “Every corner I meet, there’s two more fancy streets I’ve been walking down…there’s an eggshell to break, it’s the perfect sound.” A theme song for every New Yorker who’d love to crush every speculator’s highrise underfoot! Likewise, the understately savage country escape anthem Make the Money and Run: “You’ve got so much more love in your heart than the sum of your parts,” she entreated. By the time she’d finished the set with the wryly catchy, marching I Got You – “Don’t blame the stars for your lack of wonder” – the crowd was silent, absolutely rapt.

Draper’s next show is a really short, half-hour set at Sidewalk at 8 PM on July 16. But it’s worth coming out for because it’s A) Linda Draper, and B) Joe Yoga, the similarly intense, lyrically-fueled frontman of fiery, jazz-tinged southwestern gothic band the Downward Dogs, who plays after her.

Tamara Hey Represents for Real New Yorkers at the Slipper Room

The dichotomy that runs through Tamara Hey‘s music is edgy, funny, picturesque New York-centric lyrics set to catchy, upbeat tunes with a purist pop sensibliity. Likewise, she balances the crystalline, unselfconscious charm of her vocals with what can be devastatingly amusing, deadpan between-song commentary. Her music has special resonance for those who consider themselves oldschool New Yorkers: Hey is sort of a songwriting Woody Allen of the Lower East Side…minus the celebrity and the ugly backstory. She’s playing the Slipper Room (Orchard and Stanton, upstairs over the big tourist restaurant) on July 1 at 7:30 PM; cover is $10.

And because there’s always an element of surprise when she plays live, she’s worth seeing more than once: this blog managed to catch a grand total of three of her shows over the past year at the Rockwood. One was a solo gig; two were with melodic bassist Richard Hammond, who managed to do double duty as rhythmic center and lead player, no easy feat. And the songs ran the gamut. One of the most charming numbers was Oscar & Bud, a vivid, minutely detailed portrait of a retired ex-showbiz couple who happen to be the narrator’s key people (i.e. they’ve got her spare keys – it’s a New York thing). That song looked back to vintatge Tin Pan Alley.

But Hey likes to mix it up. Drive, with its soaring chorus, 9/11 reference and get-me-the-hell-out-of-here theme, looked back to new wave, as did Miserably Happy (title track to her cult classic powerpop album), which evoked Blondie’s Dreaming. The rambunctiously pulsing, doo-wop tinged Alphabet City, a shout-out to familiar LES haunts which have lately been disappearing one after the other, took on a bittersweet quality. Likewise, We Lean on Cars, a snapshot of middle-school North Bronx anomie circa the early 90s. Hey and Hammond also ran through some more wrly entertaning snapshots of city life: David #3, weighing whether or not to succumb to the allure of a Mr. Wrong, who happens to be a Red Sox fan; Mexico Money, a droll tale of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat; and You Wear Me Out, a clever number about how macho guys sometimes turn out to be the most insecure ones. The C-Note may be long gone, Lakeside Lounge too, and Cafe Pick-Me-Up is moving to East 7th Street, but Tamara Hey still represents for the neighborhood.

And when she’s not playing gigs, she’s busy running Alphabet City Music, who offer economical and informative courses in guitar and applied music theory for players of all levels. This blog covered her introductory music theory course last year and found it both immensely challenging and also immensely useful. By the way, just in case anyone might assume ulterior motives, i.e. sucking up to the prof, to explain why this blog has been at so many of her recent shows, let’s set that record straight. The course was offered during the summer; two of those shows were in the fall and one was this past January.

Americana Individualist Kelley Swindall Hits the Road from the Heartland to the South

Kelley Swindall is one of the most distinctive artists in Americana. She opened her most recent show here with a talking blues. Fifty years ago, every folksinger from one end of the Bleecker Street strip to the other was doing talking blues…but then again that was back when Bleecker Street was the cool part of town. Swindall’s first talking blues of the night – yup, there was more than one – happened to be her big crowd-pleaser The Murder Song, a bloody tale of lust and mayhem that’s become a cult favorite on independent radio throughout the south. If country blues, newgrass and good acoustic jambands like Old Crow Medicine Show are your thing and you’re in the part of the world where Swindall’s touring right now, you ought to see her. She’s starting her latest tour with a two-night stand at the Golconda Mansion in Golconda, Illinois on June 12 and 13 at 6 PM, then hits Charlie Bob’s in Nashville on the 14th, then at 6 PM on the 15th she’s on Hippie Hill in Cristiana, Tennessee. But the big show is her headline slot at Wingstock at City Market in Savannah, Georgia on the 21st. That may be the sunniest day of the year, but Swindall will bring on the night.

The other talking blues she did last time out was her own original, inspired by both the classic Minglewood Blues and the Grateful Dead’s psychedelic cover – Swindall’s version is closer to OCMS than the Dead, maybe since she’d switched from electric guitar to acoustic for that number. But she’s just as likely to bust out a macabre wee-hours creeper like Sidewalk’s Closed, the opening track on her amusingly titled, unspellable debut album (pronounced “Kelley Swindall”). Although she’s been on the road a lot, she’s managed to hit her old Manhattan stomping grounds more than once since the first of the year. It was good to hear her with a full band including bass and drums – and piano, too – the last time out. The time before that marked the first time she’d ever plugged in and played electric guitar onstage, something that gives her darker songs – and she has lots of them – a mighty boost.

Her new material is as good or better than anything she’s done so far. Highlights of the most recent gig included a couple of new ones, the torchy, sultry Come On Back My Way as well as a period-perfect oldschool C&W tearjerker, aptly titled Heartsick. But Swindall’s songs aren’t just about love and longing: the bastards in them get what they deserve, the careless chicks in the drugrunning anthem California run up against karma, cheaters get busted and that poor guy down Savannah way gets let down by the restless girl he’s smitten by: “That’s what drugs’ll do.” is the punchline midway through.

For those who might think it strange that a southern woman would get her start in country and blues-flavored music in New York, that’s what we listen to up here. Y’all think y’all lost the war, but the truth is you won. It just took 150 years.

A Dynamic New Album and a Bushwick Show from Cellist/Singer Patricia Santos

Patricia Santos calls herself a “vocellist.” As you would expect from a distinctive, terse cello player and strong, eclectic singer, she has her fingers in several projects. Most notably, she’s half of the cello-vocal duo the Whiskey Girls and a member of brilliant noir art-rock/circus-rock/latin band Kotorino as well. Santos also has an intriguingly intimate, tunefully diverse new album, Never Like You Think, streaming at Bandcamp and an album release show coming up at 9 PM on May 27 at Max Cellar (downstairs from Amancay’s Diner), 2 Knickerbocker Ave. at Johnson Bushwick. It’s close to the Morgan Ave. stop on the L.

The albun’s first track is The One I Should Love, a starkly swaying minor-key blues with just vocals and two instruments, sawing cello contrasting with Andrew Swift’s bitingly resonant guitar. Then the two instruments essentially switch roles. In Your Arms sets Santos’ wryly sultry vocals against a strutting tune that builds to a subtly crescendoing waltz, winding out with a long, hypnotically vamping, pitchblende outro. For You is even more spare, Santos’ warm, balmy vocals paired against a minimalist four-note riff that throws off shards of overtones, especially when she hits a passionate chorus.

Santos keeps the stark ambience going through a raptly dynamic, then unexpectedly explosive take of the classic Mexican folk song La Llorona. Old Hill, another waltz, has a wistful front-porch folk feel grounded by the celllo’s ambered tones. The album winds up with an absolutely knockout, creepy, noisy cover of Kotorono’s Little Boat. The original has a deadpan ominousness: here, Santos teams with Kotorino bandleader/guitarist Jeff Morris, building to a skronk-infested, murderous peak. It’s a cool blend of grit, elegance and raw intensity that aptly capsulizes a captivatingly individualistic debut release.

Heather Maloney Airs Out Her Powerful Voice and Promising New Songs at Joe’s Pub

The first thing that hits you like a ton of bricks when you see Heather Maloney sing is how much of an individualist she is. She likes to pronounce her R’s, maybe because her name has one. Much as you might assume that other singers wouldn’t shy away from that particular letter, they do, especially in her field, which is packed to the gills with guys from New Jersey faking a Bible Belt drawl…or even worse, doing phony ebonics which border on blackface and would have Robert Johnson and Rev. Gary Davis rolling in their graves. For her part, Maloney has a perfect Connecticut accent (she’s from the Berkshires, actually), meaning that she has no accent at all, at least from an East Coast point of view. Couple that with a range like a vintage V-16 Cadillac or a Rolls-Royce – powerful and luxuriously silky from the lows through some spectacular highs – and a complete lack of affectation, at least on her own material, and you have a force to be reckoned with. She played Joe’s Pub last night, not with her long-running band Darlingside but with a new, rotating unit comprising a guitarist/bassist, lead guitarist and drummer. Although she said they’d only been touring for a couple of weeks, they had an energy and chemistry that hinted at a longer association.

She talks to the crowd like she sings – intimately, conversationally, with an irrepressible, dry wit. Lyrically, she likes metaphors and American history, no surprise considering that her previous material ranges from the center to the fringes of Americana. Much of the material in the set was taken from her new album Making Me Break (streaming at Bandcamp), which she recorded in Nashville with members of Band of Horses, among others, whom she was able to enlist with the thirty grand she raised via crowdfunding. Her big break, she told the audience, came when Graham Nash gave his imprimatur to her version of Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock, title track to her album with Darlingside. She did that one solo acoustic and nailed every one of Joni’s austerely jazz-inflected flights up the scale, her meticulous attention to the lyrics raising the angst and longing.

As good as that one was, her original material, at its best, was just as good and when it wasn’t, showed a lot of promise: Maloney is a work in progress. She’s got a purist pop sensibility and a gift for a catchy hook that occasionally gets sabotaged by indie cliches, like on one song that was mostly movable chords (where you play, say, a C and then just hold your fingers in the same position as you move randomly up and down the fretboard). Ironically, what might have been her most anthemic vocal line of the whole night was sung over those dissonances. Let’s hope there’s a janglerock band somewhere who can deliver it with the kind of payoff and resolution missing this time around.

The best song of the night was 1855, a soaringly bittersweet tale told from the point of view of someone looking back on their 19th century parents and the single photo of them that exists, and its many implications. Maloney also hit a home run with the evening’s newest number, Holding You, I Was, an achingly elegaic, regretful, elegant but crushingly straightforward narrative set to one of Maloney’s most anthemic tunes. A brooding if upbeat new one referenced Maloney’s Saturn return (an astrological concept relating to when Saturn, on its long orbit, returns to where it was when you were born, ostensibly creating all kinds of havoc). Opening act Will Dailey distinguished himself as an economical and intuitive lead guitarist, a role he should embrace because he’s very good at it: a frontman, he’s not. The one low point was a cover of one of the worst songs ever written – a real stinker, we’re talking Taylor Swift, Britney Spears, hotel-motel-Holiday-Inn bad. But the crowd – on the older, bridge-and-tunnel side – didn’t complain. Still, Maloney should know better. It’s not likely she’ll be breaking that one out at any of the folk festivals she’s playing this summer.

Dark Songstress Ember Schrag Plays a Revealingly Low-Key Brooklyn House Concert

Carlos, the goodlooking, rangy guy who runs the space housing the Gatehouse concert series in Fort Greene, surveyed the room Friday night. His black eyes shifted warily, separating familiar faces from newcomers. His blasé, taciturn expression muted a spring-loaded, muscularly twitchy presence, clearly on the prowl for fresh meat. More about that later.

Ember Schrag opened the show in a rare all-acoustic duo performance with polymath lead guitarist Bob Bannister. Notwithstanding her DIY esthetic, Schrag is an elegant singer with sophisticated mic technique, and isn’t used to singing without one. So it was interesting to watch her scramble to find a way to project into the space, in the process unleashing an unexpected grit and raw menace that don’t usually find their way into her typically stately, enigmatic vocals. While she’s most recently been mining a richly lyrical, psychedelically-tinged art-rock vein, this setting gave her the chance to air out several tracks from her haunting, low-key, mostly acoustic Great Plains gothic album The Sewing Room, including the title track, a metaphorically-charged battle of angels that ends as an unexpectedly triumphant escape anthem. As the Nebraska-born songwriter told it, there might be more than a little autobiography in there.

Throughout Sutherland, a tensely fingerpicked murder ballad, Schrag’s voice reached for more menace and foreshadowing than her deadpan, Melora Creager-esque delivery on the studio version. By contrast, Virgin in the Shadow of My Shoe – a swaying pop anthem from Schrag’s latest release, a live Folkadelphia session featuring Susan Alcorn on pedal steel – was irresistibly snide and funny. The two guitarists kept a steady stroll going with Banquo’s Book, its ominous series of images and a deliciously understated, bitingly terse, bluesy Bannister solo.

On album, Your Words is a delicate kiss-off anthem; here, Schrag raised the anger factor, but just a little. An older song related an incident involving a collaboration with a free jazz group and an offer of free rent in a space that turned out to have bedbugs; a new one, Speak to Me in Dreams, juxtaposed another trail of nonchalantly murderous imagery with sizzling fretwork from Bannister. Schrag closed with I Ain’t a Prophet, a corruscating remake of a familiar fire-and-brimstone Bible myth – “Got to use a hammer on Jacob’s Ladder,” she calmly intoned.

Now you might think that someone whose songs can be as starkly serious as most of the numbers in this set would bring a similar gravitas to the stage. Not so. In front of an audience, Schrag is a firecracker, bantering with the crowd and sharing insights into her fabulistic, Calvinist imagery. She peppers her songs with all sorts of Old Testament references coupled with an irreverence that at the core is pure oldschool punk rock. And as generous as she is with the keys to her narratives, she also brought a delicious gin/grapefruit punch, and a cake made out of several kinds of flour that everyone was raving about, and some baked chicken.

About two songs before the end of the show, Carlos finally went into action with a flying leap onto the table, poised to make a swipe at the meat. But an audience member in the back calmly lifted the jet-black figure and his furry paws and returned him to his spot on the floor, where the hungry predator regrouped, grudgingly accepted an appreciative pat on the head, and began plotting his next move. Watch this space for upcoming shows by Schrag, with or without furry friends in the house.


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