New York Music Daily

Music for Transcending Dark Times

Tag: singer-songwriter

Ward White’s Leonard at the Audit – Best Rock Record of 2020 So Far

Since the early zeros, songwriter Ward White has been on a creative tear matched by few other artists, ever. In context: Bowie in the 70s; Aretha in the 60s; Elvis Costello from 1977 to about 1985; and Steve Wynn pretty much since birth. Hall of fame company. And White just doesn’t stop: his tenth and latest album, Leonard at the Audit, is streaming at Bandcamp. In terms of searingly literary lyricism set to imaginative, catchy rock changes, White is pretty much unsurpassed these days.

This particular record is probably the closest thing to White’s sinister nonlinear song cycle Bob – rated best rock record of the year here in 2013 – that he’s released since then. The album title reflects parallel narratives: Leonard Cohen’s 1960s flirtation with Scientology, and a seemingly mundane but actually much more grim story that looks back to the deadly geopolitics of the Bob record. Is this a sequel? Maybe.

The opening track, Bubble and Squeak, is White at the top of his imagistic, slashing game. A creepy cast of characters from the deep state along with an undertaker’s assistant make their entrance, none of them identified by name. “If you tangle with the Pharisees, be prepared to give up a son,” White warns. Musically, this sounds like the Police, built around a recurring guitar figure that White calls “seasick.” The band – Andrew Bird keyboardist Tyler Chester, Jakob Dylan drummer Mark Stepro and bassist John Spiker – maintain a low-key new wave pulse alongside him.

White goes for a more lush, ornate, briskly backbeat-driven feel in Not the Half, probably the only song to date to make the connection between Dylan Thomas final post-barroom collapse and lockdown-era respirator deaths. Above the watery web of guitars, the story references a hostage but also issues of artistic posterity or lack thereof.

The voice of a seemingly stoned and enlightenment-fixated Cohen alternates with someone whose marriage is going to hell on the express track in the similarly enveloping, jangly Ice Capades – or maybe it’s just a single narrator. The journey to the center of White’s songs is always a challenge, but an irresistible one.

Awash in hazy mellotron and icy chorus-box guitar, the Pink Floyd-inflected title track weighs the sacred against the profane – alongside what might or might not be a plane crash. The next song’s “Kleenex/Phoenix” rhyme is one of White’s funniest lyrical moments ever, and the litany of 70s references afterward are just as amusing, as is the central guitar hook – in a skeletal art-rock song about a contract killing, no less.

Likewise, the opening clang of Edmund Fitzgerald Is a Wreck (DAMN, White nails everything 70s here!), a sick, distantly late Beatlesque, characteristically image-rich Wisconsin death trip.

The backdrop shifts ten years forward into allusive 80s powerballadry with Try Me. The suspense and the black humor are relentless:

I was talking to the funeral director
Asking him how much this might all cost
He said “It’s hard to put a price on a relationship with God”
I said “Try me”

The surrealism reaches fever pitch in Dreaming of Dentistry, a druggy El Lay tableau akin to Floyd doing a sneering take on 70s lounge-pop with more than a hint of southwestern gothic. Dead People Fucking is one of White’s more Costelloesque numbers, referencing James Joyce, Henry Miller, Charles Bukowski, and others with wry imagery that’s part Shakespeare, part Warren Zevon.

White sets the ominous gambling metaphors of You Gotta Have a System to a slow, lingering sway:

Lucky with queens, but not in spades
I told you to hit me!
Diamonds retreat where the heart invades
You might as well double down

He winds up the record with the Bowie-esque Pornographic Ennui, connecting the bloody dots between dirty pix and police state ruthlessness:

He was a man who liked machines;
On cocaine it was guns, on beer, anything that runs on gasoline

If it still makes sense for there to be such a thing as a music blog in December 2020 – let’s hope there is – you’ll see this again, high on the best albums of the year list.

A Rare Chance to Score This Era’s Most Formidable Rock Songwriter’s Obscure Debut Album

Hannah vs. the Many frontwoman Hannah Fairchild released her debut album Paper Kingdoms under her own name in 2010. She and the first incarnation of the band played the release show at the tiny, long-defunct Park Slope boite Bar 4. That’s how the great ones get started.

The album pretty much sank without a trace. But just for today, May 1 it’s up at Bandcamp as a name-your-price download. On one hand, you could say that this is strictly for the diehards. On the other, it’s a fascinating blast from the past from a songwriter who would grow into one of the most witheringly lyrical, ferociously powerful rock tunesmiths ever.

At her blog (also recently resurrected), she looks back on the strategy and logistics (or lack thereof) for making a bedroom pop record on a secondhand laptop, playing all the instruments….with a broken ankle, no less. While a lot of these songs lack the focus and savagery of her breakout album, All Our Heroes Drank Here, and her valkyrie wail doesn’t cut loose to the extent that she’s let it in the years since, there are moments of vocal brilliance and embryonic craft that will take your breath away.

Fairchild would eventually reprise five of these songs for her ferocious 2013 short album Ghost Stories. Hearing the subdued take of All Eyes on Me – Fairchild’s Don’t Fear the Reaper – is a revelation. So is Poor Leander, with its slashingly detailed story of a poor schlub in way, way too deep for his own good; it cuts through just as ominously if a lot more quietly here. And who would have known how much new resonance the line about how “I’ve got my mask on and I’m slipping out the side door” – in the defiant individualist’s anthem Lady of the Court – would take on over the past few weeks? Grab this piece of history while it lasts.

A Sizzling Live Newschool C&W Album from Amanda Anne Platt & the Honeycutters

Time to say it again: more bands should make live albums. Amanda Anne Platt & the Honeycutters‘ Live at the Grey Eagle – streaming at Spotify– is one of the best of the past year’s batch. One of the most smartly lyrical songwriters in Americana, she has a crackerjack oldschool C&W band behind her throughout this lavish 23-track collection recorded in front of a boisterous, hometown Asheville crowd.

“They teach you not to bite on the hand that feeds, but when you’re starving sometimes you just don’t know,” Platt twangs in the opening number, 90 Miles, a characteristically cynical, somewhat muted backbeat-driven breakup song. With its rapidfire lyrics, her brother Andrew Platt’s choogling lead guitar and Matt Smith’s wafting pedal steel, the shuffle Better Woman brings to mind Amy Rigby‘s adventures in Americana.

Evan Martin’s piano tinkles along, up to a spine-tingling steel solo in Jukebox, a country-soul now-or-never anthem: “Songbirds just ain’t built to fly, but sooner or later we have try,” Platt muses. If you remember jukeboxes, this one only costs a quarter!

The band ease their way into a brisk shuffle in All You Ever Needed, a cautionary tale for those who set their sights too low. Platt keeps that vividly seething exasperation going in Back Row, a bittersweet wake-up call to a self-destructive friend, with a fiery Memphis soul guitar solo over washes of organ. Likewise, the tersely tasty breaks in Blue Besides, Platt assessing whether getting the hell out is always necesarily the answer.

“When it comes to waiting, I’ve been practicing for years,” Platt announces in Golden Child, a defiantly triumphant, soul-tinged number. A broodingly upbeat war parable set to a brisk Texas shuffle beat, Lillies could be the Grateful Dead at their tightest, with a woman out front. The band go back to soul-tinged country with Wheels, then cover the BeeGees’ To Love Somebody as Dusty Springfield might have done it.

The show dips to a spare, pensive solo acoustic take of Holy Wall, then the band come back up for Eden, a chillingly detailed portrait of slow decay in Flyover America. As Platt sings, you really can’t go home again: “Please let me back inside the garden, I won’t eat anything that’s fallen from that goddamn tree.”

Martin spices the restless wanderlust tale Carolina with some oldschool Nashville slip-key piano. Platt dedicates the slow waltz Sawdust Girl to her mentor in lutherie, Asheville guitar builder Brad Nickerson, picking up the pace with the steel-driven Getting Good at Waiting – a big theme with her, huh?

The pensive Birthday Song is surprisingly more subdued than the album version. “Tonight this town is ours,” Platt intones in Low Road, a wise, richly detailed, summery carpe-diem ballad. Then the energy rises again with Irene, a tenderly reassuring, bittersweetly shuffling honkytonk number.

Platt’s solo acoustic take of The Road is aptly stark and wistful. From there the band slowly rise with a vampy Lou Reed feel in Diamond in the Rough and then keep those changes going through the Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want. For the encores, they work their way up from a delicate, elegant fingerpicked intro in Not Over Yet and close the night with the bristling blues Fancy Car, with slashing solos all around, including violin and harmonica – the latter by Platt’s impressibly tuneful dad – way back in the mix.

Hilarious, Witheringly Insightful Heartland Americana From Chicago Farmer

Cody Diekhoff a.k.a. Chicago Farmer writes knowingly wry, often witheringly spot-on, ferociously populist blue-collar narratives set to a dynamically rousing Americana backdrop. His debut album Backenforth, IL made the shortlist of the best albums of the year here back in 2013. He titled his new one Flyover Country, just as Amanda Gardier (featured here yesterday) did with hers. First time there have ever been two albums with the same name on this page on consecutive days! Who knows, maybe that’s a meme.

This particular Flyover Country – streaming at youtube – begins with Indiana Line, a fiery, bluesy, open-tuned outlaw ballad. “I’ll be the king of roadkill, two birds at a time,” insists this rural Avon Barksdale: there’s a reason he’s so reckless moving all that weight, but it’s too good a story to spoil.

The funniest song here is 13 Beers: it’s sweet redemption for any concertgoer who’s been scammed and subjected to one indignity after another at a Ticketbastard arena. It makes you want to sing along with the ending, even if Dieckhoff planned that all along.

The title track is unusually earnest for him: yeah, us East Coast snobs look down our snooty noses on Heartland America, which does all the heavy lifting and doesn’t get much in return. Trouble is, that’s a coast-to-coast problem.

The lyrically torrential eco-disaster parable Mother Nature’s Daughter is an update on Blonde on Blonde Dylan: “Mother nature’s daughter, they’ve done sold and bought her, there ain’t no more water in the well,” Dieckhoff warns.

“White collar crime pays, and blue collar crime takes away,’” is the chorus in Collars, a sad waltz that brings to mind John Prine’s Hello in There thematically if not musically. Dieckhoff sends a shout-out to hardworking, underpaid musicians and their equally hardworking, underpaid fans in the hillbilly boogie All in One Place and follows with Deer in the Sky, which has a little Creedence feel to it and a funny assessment of the perils of flying versus driving.

The cover of Hank Williams’ Ramblin Man has a welcome Nashville gothic sparseness. Baseball season may be in jeopardy, but the metaphors of Dirtiest Uniform are timeless. Dickhoff wraps up the album with The Village Revisited, a grim hurricane parable that’s part Creedence, part Stones. We need more guys like this who can be stone-cold serious, but just as gut-bustingly amusing.

Thoughtful, Carefully Crafted, Gospel-Tinged Songwriting From Christina Courtin

Since her Juilliard days in the early zeros, multi-instrumentalist Christina Courtin has shifted seamlessly between the worlds of classical, film music and low-key, pensive songwriting that sometimes fits into the chamber pop category. Her main axe is violin, but she’s also a competent guitarist. Her lyrics have a stream-of-consciousness feel that often masks a slashing sense of humor. Her latest album Situation Station is streaming at Bandcamp.

“If I had some money I’d take the train, take it further than faraway,” she sings on the album’s calmy lustrous opening track, Japanese Maple Tree. Chris Parker’s strummy acoustic guitar, Kenny Wollesen’s boomy drums, James Shipp’s muted vibraphone and Greg Cohen’s bass propel the suspiciously blithe, coldly sarcastic folk-pop tune Stare Into the Sun.

Pianist Danny Fox infuses Bouquet with a spare, gospel-tinged ambience, Courtin bringing in a lush orchestral arrangement. “Got my missile pointed right where I want it to be,” she asserts in Dear Lieder, which is even more skeletal: “If I blow up everyone I might just get some rest.”

The album’s most anthemic singalong is the triumphant Life So Far, with its gorgeous, gusty strings. Courtin returns to a soul-gospel vibe with the slowky crescendoing Matthew’s Wings, spiced with a terse slide guitar solo, and picks up that same warmth with a heftier arrangement a little later in Love Is a Season.

The most striking song here is the title track, Courtin tracing an idyllic childhood memory not likely to return, if ever, as the music shifts from overcast atmospherics to a jaunty ragtime strut. Fox moves to electric piano for Coyote Midnight, a simmering nocturne that could be about an abuser, or someone in politics. She closes the record with the gentle, elegaic You Held Me Up.

The last time this blog was in the house at one of Courtin’s gigs, it was at Barbes late on a Thursday night in the spring of 2018. Playing solo, she split the show between instrumentals and vocal numbers; her voice seemed clearer, less husky than it is on this record. It was a very calming, peaceful, enveloping performance, music to really get lost in, a welcome nightcap after a rather stuffy evening in one of the big midtown concert halls a couple of hours earlier.

A Characteristically Rich, Diverse Year of Shows at Manhattan’s Best Venue for Acoustic and Folk Music

The American Folk Art Museum won the annual award for Best Manhattan Venue here back in 2016. It would be just as easy to say that again in 2019. Impresario Lara Ewen‘s mostly-weekly Free Music Fridays series is still the most transit-accessible way to discover new songwriting and traditional music talent in this city, artists from all over the world covet playing in the museum’s rich natural reverb…and you can get a glass of wine here for a third of what it would cost you at Rockwood Music Hall.

As you would expect at a museum whose equally amazing exhibits document folk art and outsider art spanning the past few centuries, there’s plenty of folk music here. But even the oldtime sounds extend well beyond the world of fingerpicked front-porch acoustic guitar tunes. The best traditional show here this year was by singer Vienna Carroll, a historian whose insights into a set of rousing blues, gospel and string band songs reflected the triumphs of African-Americans over 19th century slaveowner terrorism and racism rather than the more common narrative of endless suffering. Queen Esther, a Folk Art Museum regular, reaffirmed that same fearlessly subversive esthetic at a couple of shows in February and July, featuring both Eastern Seaboard blues and soul-tinged originals.

Other entertaining oldtime folk shows included sets by the harmony-driven Triboro in May, as well as Irish tunesmith Brendan O’Shea (whose defiant, populist originals were even better) in July. Of all the original songwriters here, the most shattering was Karen Dahlstrom, whose November set featured a lot of material from her latest release No Man’s Land (a lock for best short album of 2019).  With her fearsome but meticulously nuanced alto, she aired out the fiery, gospel-infused title track, a Metoo-era broadside, as well as the metaphorically haunting After the Flood – a look at both personal and global apocalypses – and a new number, My Benevolent Destroyer, a chilling portrait of a broken marriage through the prism of imperialist domination.

Joshua Garcia, with his flinty voice and harrowing, Phil Ochs-inspired narratives, put the struggles of new immigrants and battered women in potently political perspective, along with the most chillingly allusive song about the Hiroshima bombing ever written. Miriam Elhajli sang in both English and Spanish, looking outward at the grim political climate as well as more inwardly, with intricate guitar fingerpicking and some intriguing jazz and Latin American riffs.

Niall Connolly held the crowd rapt with his brooding, tersely crystallized songs of struggle and emotional abandonment and rage against the Trumpies (a reaction that ran high at practically every show here this year). Soulstress Dina Regine, who played here in both April and June, was much the same, thematically, although her music draws more on classic 1960s American grooves.

How torchy singer Jeanne Marie Boes managed to get so much epic power and range out of her tiny keyboard is a mystery, although her towering, angst-fueled ballads and a couple of detours into darkly majestic blues had a relentlessly direct intensity. With her resonant chorister’s voice and deadpan surrealism, cellist/singer Meaner Pencil a.k.a. Lenna M. Pierce (she got her stage name the online anagram generator, she explained) was just as gripping, in a completely different vein.

Songstress/acoustic guitarist Kalyani Singh illuminated a dark inner world with a similar, often minimalistic focus, while southwestern singer Kate Vargas got the crowd going with singalongs and innumerable chances to have fun with beats. And Feral Foster – who runs the Jalopy’s longtime Roots & Ruckus series – didn’t let being under the weather get in the way of a characteristically haunted, expertly fingerpicked set of grim Nashville gothic laments and ballads.

The American Folk Art Museum’s Free Music Fridays series resumes January 10 at 5:30 PM with the soaring, brilliantly lyrical Linda Draper. There’s also an ongoing free series of guitar jazz concerts most every Wednesday at 2 PM with Bill Wurtzel and bassist Jay Leonhart.

The Greenpoint Songwriters Exchange Create the Newest Sound Around

Every month, the Greenpoint Songwriters Exchange plays the freshest material you can hear anywhere in New York. That’s because almost all of the Brooklyn collective’s songs are brand new. Ringleader Lorrane Leckie hosts a weekly salon where a rotating cast of some of the best songwriters you’ve never heard of – and some that you definitely have – workshop new material, then they take it to the stage in Williamsburg. Leckie in particular has been working on new material for her upcoming show on Nov 24 at 7 PM with her ferocious, psychedelic band the Demons at the Mercury. Fellow guitarslinger and charismatic singer Mallory Feuer’s equally ferocious band the Grasping Straws open the night at 6; cover is $10.

The October Greenpoint Songwriters Exchange lineup was typically diverse and just as interesting. Leckie debuted a forlornly strolling tribute to her recently departed French bulldog, Eloise, one of the more memorable musician mascots in this city in recent years. LJ Murphy, the group’s cleanup hitter, recast a couple of broodingly aphoristic older tunes as vintage soul music. Another first-class singer, Paul Anthony, went just as deeply into Sam Cooke-tinged soul.

The edgiest new material of the night was from Jeannie Skelly, one of the group’s strongest singers and guitarists. Her first number was a hilariously vindictive anti-fascist rant; the second was just as amusing, an apparently true story about an old friend who returns from his world travels a changed man: he’s become a vegetarian supremacist!

Carly Spell, a relative newcomer, held the crowd rapt with an allusively haunting chronicle of addiction and its most dire consequences. Likewise, Sara Hurwitz‘s poignant opening number, assesseddiminishing hopes for artistic community in a city completely devastated by gentrification. Lead guitarist Robert Troise added some neat bluegrass flatpicking on that one.

Eve Blackwater got everybody laughing and singing along to one of the funniest and most explicit fuck-you anthems written in recent months. Eric Richmond took the crowd back to a 1979 of the mind with a bleakly imagistic, tightly composed, Graham Parker-esque new wave tune. Teresa Toro, the latest and brighest addition to another collective, the Bushwick Book Club, brought down the lights with a couple of understatedly torchy, jazz-inflected numbers. Feuer also set aside her usual firepower for an enigmatic, more dreampop-flavored tune. And Sarah Murdoch, who might be the most powerful singer of the entire bunch, validated the argument that she’s just as nuanced and intense a blues singer as she is with jazz and Americana.

The Greenpoint Songwriters Exchange’s monthly show continues at Pete’s tonight, Nov 11 at 6 PM, so you won’t have to worry about the L train going down on your way home.

Jenifer Jackson Returns to Her Catchy, Poignant Psychedelic Pop Roots

Of all the songwriters who built their careers in the incredibly fertile crucible of the Lower East Side New York scene in the late 90s and early zeros, Jenifer Jackson is one of the most prolific and arguably the best. Over the years, she’s moved from Beatlesque psychedelia to stark, brooding pastoral pop, bossa nova and harrowing, majestic art-rock. She’s also been a poineer of the DIY house concert tour circuit Her move to Austin in the early part of the decade springboarded a deep dive into Americana. Her latest album Paths – streaming at Bandcamp – is a return to the catchy, anthemic, eclectic psychedelic pop she made a name with early in her career. Jackson has a pair of New York gigs coming up next month. She’s at the Owl on Nov 3 at 8, then the next night, Nov 4 at the same time she’s at the big room at the Rockwood.

On the new record, her voice is more nuanced than ever; her lyrics are characteristically crystallized, imagistic and loaded with subext. There’s a restrained angst in her delivery as she soars up to the chorus on the elegantly waltzing opening track, Things I Meant to Tell You, Jim Hoke’s flute and Chris Carmichael’s one-man string quartet adding a stark baroque touch. As usual, Jackson lets the images of returning to a dusty room after a trip speak for themselves. It packs a gentle wallop.

There’s a delicate web of acoustic guitar fingerpicking beneath the orchestration in the tender early-dawn scenario First Bird. Then the band – which includes Brad Jones on guitars, bass and keys, Pat Sansone on guitar and mellotron and Josh Hunt on drums – picks up the pace with Back Home, a big, electric, organ-driven backbeat rocker. “The silence almost made me lose my mind,” Jackson confides: the tradeoff between organ and twelve-string guitar in the break is absolutely luscious.

Travelled Together, a bittersweet breakup ballad, has wintry, vintage 60s orchestration and Laurel Canyon psychedelic pop ambience: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Judy Henske catalog. Sultry Memory is a summery psychedelic soul ballad with shimmering vibraphone: it has the enigmatic lushness of Jackson’s classic 2007 Outskirts of a Giant Town and the lush Philly soul of Got To Have You, two standout numbers from Jackson’s vast output over the years.

Hey, Good is a wistful, hopeful, sprightly tune with ukulele and just a hint of brass: it could be a charming lost acoustic McCartney miniature from the White Album. Jackson brings back the electricity and the backbeat in Written in Stone: imagine the Byrds backing the Mamas & the Papas.

Jackson likes to put a good old-fashioned hard country tune on every album, and What Good’s a Memory is a picture-perfect vintage 60s tune, right down to the saloon piano and pedal steel. She wraps up the record with a country gospel-flavored piano ballad, Hail and Farewell. In a time where the brain drain out of New York stalled or even destroyed so many music careers, it’s testament to Jackson’s sheer talent (not to mention persistence) that she’s been able to stay on a creative tear that just won’t quit.

[If you’re looking for today’s Halloween installment, take a trip back to October 21 of last year for an underrated, darky psychedelic 2013 release – amazingly still available as a free download – by a New York band who should have gone a lot further than they did]

Folk Noir and Fearlessly Political Songwriting: Still Going Strong in the East Village

Sunday night at Scratcher Bar in the East Village, Lara Ewen and Niall Connolly strung together a couple hours worth of memorably surreal narratives and catchy acoustic guitar tune with a crafty expertise that’s become increasingly rare in this city.

Ewen, who is probably best known as the founder and fearless impresario of the mostly-weekly Free Music Fridays series at the American Folk Art Museum, is also a distinctive tunesmith in her own right and opened this particular show. There was a lot of fresh new material in her set, an auspicious preview of her long-awaited new album, mostly likely due out sometime next year. This time out, there was more bluesy grit in her voice than usual, and she fingerrpicked a lot more as well.

“I don’t write political songs,” she told the crowd, “Politics is something we tend to do in every moment of our lives,” she explained, prefacing a witheringly sarcastic new number about an sexual assault survivor, and then a kid who narrowly misses getting shot by the cops, each emphasizing how incredibly lucky they are.

Another aphoristic, darkly sparkling new song concerned a guy who manages to dig himself into a hole where he’s comfortable, way down in the dark. In the final verse, he brings a length of rope down there, although Ewen never reveals what exactly he does with it. Her other character studies, some new and some older and full of strange, unresolved chords, had similarly lingering imagery, situated among the down and out, or the about to be down and out. Like hell Ewen isn’t political: she just doesn’t preach.

Watching Connolly parse a series of terse, judiciously picked tunes, it’s obvious that he’s a rock guy: it was easy to imagine him playing those lines on a Strat with a rhythm section behind him. He’s more overtly political than Ewen, with an unassuming, raw, often melancholy vocal delivery. The big audience singalong was a soaringly anthemic portrait of the last days of Irish Revolutionary hero James Connolly (an ancestor, maybe?): “Lily, don’t you cry, I’ve lived the fullest of lives” was the chorus.

The best of the new ones was a spot-on, strange account of a late-night Rockaways bus ride (interrupted for Miller High Life and a shot of well whiskey at a watering hole along the way), and the kind of weirdos you meet there, everybody sharing the near dream-state surrealism of outer-borough afterwork fatigue.

Connolly is also a great storyteller without his guitar (Ewen said that she’d stolen all her stage banter from him: not a bad place to start). The funniest tale of the night concerned a bus driver who pulled to the curb for a second, exited the vehicle and shouted his order for fried rice to the Chinese restaurant cook taking a break across the street. Connolly, a populist to the core, explained that he has a special appreciation for any employee who likes to bend the rules.This particular takeout joint’s fried rice is apparently worth a risk.

Connolly’s next gig is Oct 17 at 8:30 PM at the Hunterian at 413 E 70th St. between First and York Aves.. Theres also an excellent bill coming up at the Folk Art Museum on Oct 18 at at 6 PM with  Sharon Goldman – one of the great tunesmiths to come out of the NYC acoustic scene since the turn of the century – and dark, brilliantly lyrical oldtimey songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Pete Lanctot.

Celebrating One of Manhattan’s Most Fearless Impresarios at the Borough’s Best Listening Room

There aren’t many venues left anywhere in New York where you can walk in on just about any show night and randomly discover a great new band or solo artist. But you can still do that at the American Folk Art Museum. The museum earned this blog’s award for Best Manhattan Venue a couple of years ago, largely because of impresario Lara Ewen, who brings in a wildly diverse and frequently excellent mix of global folk styles along with Americana and singer-songwriters.

Ewen is turning fifty this June 14, and an all-star cast (she isn’t saying who, just yet) are on tap to come out to celebrate at her mostly-weekly Free Music Fridays series at the museum starting at 5:30 PM. Ewen’s booking (and her songwriting) reflect her background growing up in working-class, multicultural Queens. Three recent discoveries there – for this blog, at least – reflect Ewen’s ferocious dedication to bringing in music that represents the real New York.

In his debut at the museum this past spring, Greg Connors played electric guitar – not something you’d expect at a venue originally know for folk music, but Ewen likes to defy the odds. He ran his axe through a pedalboard with a lot of effects, flinging chords out into the space’s natural reverb and building to stomping, singalong choruses. His lyrics are edgy and cynical; his songs tell brooding stories set among the down-and-out without being cliched. His tantalizingly short set, clocking in at just over a half an hour, reminded of 90s underground songwriting stars Matt Keating or Jim Allen from time to time. If Connors had been around back then, he probably would have been playing CB’s Gallery and Sin-e and the rest of the East Village songwriter venues, all of them gone in a blitzkrieg of gentrification and real estate bubble madness. Connors hangs his hat in Peekskill now – he was awestruck at how attentively the audience at the museum responded, considering that he’s used to singing over crowds of drunks.

In her museum debut a week later, Ruby Landen explored several more traditional folk styles, from Appalachian-flavored balladry to French chanson. Her spare, elegant, eclectic guitar fingerpicking matched her low-key, purposefully plaintive vocals. She’s a relative newcomer to the New York Americana scene, so at the time of her show there was little on the web about her beyond a couple of youtube videos. But Ewen books a lot of good up-and-coming artists regardless of how little-known they are.

Another individualistic artist who’s just getting started and made her debut there last month is Yurby, who has even less of a presence online. There’s nobody in New York who sounds anything like her. Backed for most of her show by a bluesy, jazz-influenced electric guitar, she showed off a disarmingly clear, pure soul voice throughout a catchy mix of slowly unwinding ballads. Once in awhile there’d be a hint of a latin Caribbean influence, but otherwise, it wouldn’t be fair to pigeonhole her as neosoul. And her lyrics deal with empowerment and fighting injustice as much as the usual battle of the sexes. At the end of her set, she treated the crowd to one of those anthems, in Spanish.

Who knows – it wouldn’t be a stretch to see all three of these artists at Ewen’s birthday party. And maybe Ewen herself will treat the crowd to a few numbers – she won’t admit it, but she has one of the most magically mutable voices in town.