New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: singer-songwriter

Ward White Plays an Enticingly Quiet, Lyrically Rich Show at the Rockwood

Ward White is New York’s preeminent literate tunesmith. His songs come across as a sort of catchy, anthemic, current-day update on Hermann Hesse’s Glass Bead Game. They bristle with references to novels, film, theate, art, history…and sometimes silly current events. For all the doomed imagery, savagery and relentless cynicism on his latest album Ward White Is the Matador, those songs can be hilarious. His stage show is the same way. It would have been fun to have been able to catch him playing a relatively rare solo acoustic set – the kind where you can really listen, and get into those lyrics, and try to figure out what the hell all those twisted stories are about – at Pete’s Candy Store a couple of weeks back. But the L wasn’t running. For those who missed that show – or White’s searing electric show with his band at the big room at the Rockwood last month – he’s making another semi-rare acoustic appearance at the small room there at 9 PM on March 31. It’s a good segue, actually, because White’s a criminally good guitarist and he’s followed on the bill at 10 PM by another mean picker, bluegrass maven Michael Daves, who’s playing his weekly Rockwood residency.

That February show there was much like White’s fiery Bowery Electric album release show late last year. Violinist Claudia Chopek fueled the centerpiece of both the show and the album, Bikini – a reference to the radioactive South Pacific bombsite rather than beachwear – with her knifes-edge, shivery crescendos. Bassist Bryan Smith fired off boomy, muscular low-register chords coupled to nimbly catchy hooks further up the fretboard. While it’s not like White – who alternated between punchy glamrock hooks, resonant jangle and soaring leads all night – really needs a lead guitarist, Smith filled that role when the music got quieter. Visually, the star of the show was harmony singer Victoria Liedtke, who balanced a stoic Lynch girl presence with some pricelesss cat-ate-the-canary expressions in response to White’s banter, which were every bit as as funny as the songs’ double entendres and references to things like mylar balloons.

That’s what one of the night’s best songs was centered around, an offhandedly chilling hospital scene set to a allusively balmy ballad backdrop – mylar balloons are those shiny things you can get in any hospital gift shop, White explained. The understatedly creepy, retro 60s pop of Dolores on the Dotted Line was as suspenseful and offhandedly apt a portrait of control-freak sadism as it is on album. The album’s pulsing opening number, Sabbath, was as amusing as it was ineluctably bleak. In between, White cracked up the crowd with the S&M Bacharach bossa nova of Alphabet of Pain as well as plenty of sardonic between-song one-liners, but he didn’t do much explaining when it came to the songs. Although he did allude to references to both an unnamed Kurosawa film and a David Foster Wallace novel in one of the set’s later numbers. Go to the Tuesday night show and find out what else you missed.

Downtown Luminaries and Secret Special Guests Play Richard Thompson and Graham Parker at the Mercury this Sunday

The classic album night was invented at the Bottom Line, the West 4th Street venue shuttered in 2004 after their landlord, New York University, raised their rent in order to kick them out for good since they owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in back rent. At that point, the gay couple who owned the club were getting old but were stubbornly still booking has-beens from the venue’s glory days in the 70s, when Bruce Springsteen sold out a weeklong stand and Lou Reed recorded his Take No Prisoners album there. Attrition is a cruel thing, and it did the Bottom Line in.

Still, the club made the occasional halfhearted attempt to draw a crowd. The most successful, at least moneywise, were the classic album nights. It’s not clear who did the first album cover night there: it might have been New Jersey bar band leader Gary Myrick, or it might have been the crew who eventually morphed into the Loser’s Lounge contingent, whose preference for cheese and camp typically overwhelmed any lackadaisical attempt to do justice to the songs, such as they were, Either way, it was a cheap way to pack the club. Thirty people in the band, running on and offstage, everybody bringing a girlfriend or boyfriend, maybe even another friend or two? Multiply that by what was then a stiff twenty dollar cover…and no drink tickets for the band, since there were so many musicians. Pure gravy for the venue – especially since everyone except for the organizers were playing for free.

In the decade or so since the Bottom Line closed, there have been innumerable other classic album nights staged across this city. Some of the less crassly commercial ones have been transcendent: Mary Lee’s Corvette outdid Dylan with their live version of Blood on the Tracks the first time around, released it on album, then played it again live, twelve years later. System Noise, who morphed into Americana jamband the Sometime Boys, sold out venues all over town with their Ziggy Stardust cover nights. There’s a classic album twinbill coming up at 6 (six) PM on Sunday, March 22 at the Mercury that threatens to rival both of those, where an A-list of downtown NYC talent will be covering both Richard & Linda Thompson’s iconic Shoot Out the Lights album as well as Graham Parker’s new wave cult classic Squeezing Out Sparks.

What might be coolest about this is that this is the second time this crew will be doing Shoot Out the Lights. They played it last November at Tom Clark’s weekly Sunday night Treehouse Americana extravaganza at 2A, so if there were any bugs to work out, those should be history (the whole night was recorded and is up at youtube). Bass player Tom Shad gets credit with coming up with the idea; guitarist Rich Feridun is unbelievable as he channels Thompson’s tortured clusters and spirals. The rest of the band that night included Ward White and Erica Smith on vocals (just watch her wailing her way through Wall of Death, relishing every line); Dave Foster on guitar and vocals; Lizzie Edwards on harmonies; Charlie Roth on keys and Chris Schulz on drums. It’s not clear exactly who’s doing what this time around, but the cast has been expanded to include powerpop maven John Sharples, American Ambulance’s Pete Cenedella, star bassist Lisa Dowling, Matt Keating. and Tim Simmonds of Admiral Porkbrain, among others. Cover is ten bucks. And there will be special guests…but this blog is sworn to secrecy. Hint: some of them, um, might have played on the originals.

Yet Another Darkly Lyrical Masterpiece and a Rockwood Show from Matt Keating

Few songwriters personify the definition of cult artist better than Matt Keating. It may not necessarily be an easy life, but it’s a rewarding one. If he wants to play electric, he’s got his choice of plenty of venues, and if he just wants to go solo acoustic, he can play the folkie circuit around the world til the cows come home. He’s also in demand as a producer (he was hugely instrumental in helping Linda Draper take a hard detour into Americana) and as a sideman on lead guitar, bass and keyboards. And very methodically, over the past couple of decades he’s built a body of work to rival any other tunesmith active today. Keating is eclectic, shifting seamlessly between Elvis Costello-esque janglerock, rustic country blues, high lonesome C&W and most recently, plaintive oldschool soul. There’s a relentless unease and angst in those catchy tunes: Steve Wynn is a good comparison, although more thematically than musically. Keating just put the finishing touches on his long-awaited new album, This Perfect Crime – streaming at his webpage – and has an album release show coming up at the big room at the Rockwood at 8 PM on Feb 17. Cover is $10.

His previous album Wrong Way Home was a masterpiece of psychopathology and inventive cross-genre tunesmithing. Quixotic, the one before that, was a lavish double-cd feast of Americana-informed jangle and clang. This one is sort of the missing link between the two, as rich with melody as it is with grim narratives. The title track, When They’ve Thrown You Away builds to a hypnotic night-drive ambience, a bed of acoustic guitars floating over the organ as Keating draws a searing portrait of a doomed couple in Flyover America hell:

She was born in the buckle of the Bible Belt
She was raised by the knuckle her daddy never felt

And it gets more allusively gruesome from there.

Nothing to Figure Out has a similar, delicate blend of guitar and organ, transcontinental plane ride cast as loaded metaphor for a relationship unraveling over distance. Mothers Day is the first of the propulsive janglerockers (Tony Scherr and Allen Devine share lead guitar duties), pulsing along on a backbeat groove from bassist Jason Mercer and drummer Greg Wieczorek (also of Karla Moheno‘s band) as it builds to a lush sweep with Claudia Chopek’s one-woman string section.
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The title track hits a growling, Stonesy bounce, in this case building to a big crescendo fueled by some aptly snarling lead guitar and Dave Sewelson’s one-man horn section. Sullivan Street, by contrast, is a gritty, whisperingly conspiratorial tale among the down-and-out in what’s left of the fringes of the West Village: it’s as quintessentially New York as anything Lou Reed ever wrote.

Keating’s tinkling, Nicky Hopkins-inspired piano and Sewelson’s honking baritone sax mingle above a slowly swaying Glimmer Twins backdrop on the cynical Hell If I Know. The minimalist, low-key The Only Thing evokes the starker material on Wrong Way Home, if with considerably more wry humor. I’m Lucky mashes up deadpan, sarcastic Lou Reed with elegant Spottiswoode-style chamber-folk.

The most sinister of all the narratives here is English Coffee. It’s sort of Springsteen’s Atlantic City told from the point of view of an American expat on unfamiliar and very uneasy turf, set to rippling, Beatlesque raga-rock. Is this guy a hitman? A rocker on tour? Maybe both?

Keating abruptly shifts gears after that with This Must Be Love, its tender, delicate web of guitars barely concealing a cynical undercurrent. Before the War is vintage Keating: doomed, metaphorically loaded imagery, catchy verse rising to a wicked singalong chorus:

There’s no rest for the weary
No doubt for the sure
No heartbreak in theory
Right before the war

The album winds up with a fond love ballad with a distant gospel tinge, a shout-out to Keating’s family. What else is there to say: in about ten months you’ll see this high on the Best Albums of 2015 page here and at probably a lot of other places too.

Kelley Swindall Takes Her Menacing Americana Back to Her Old Stomping Grounds Down South

Kelley Swindall‘s set at CMJ in New York this past fall was an acoustic duo show at Rockwood Music Hall. Her last New York show – at least for awhile, rumor has it – was her first-ever gig on electric guitar, and it suited her just fine. She didn’t change her strumming or her elegant fingerpicking, but she got a resonance out of it that infused the nocturnal atmosphere of her Tom Waits-ish southern gothic narratives with an especially eerie gleam. Right now Swindall is in the early stages of her Snowdrifter’s Tour; her next weekend gig is Jan 17 at 9:30 PM at the Peerless Saloon, 13 W 10th St. in Anniston, Alabama with purist newgrass/front-porch folk guitarist/singer Brooks Coffin & the Academics. If you’re in the neighorhood and you like your classic country blues with a menacing edge, you won’t do any better than the show this Saturday night.

Maybe it was plugging into an amp, or maybe it was just the intensity of the moment – leaving NYC is always hard – but that last gig she played here was electric in more ways than one. She opened solo with the menacing, dimlit downtown narrative Sidewalk Closed, then brought her drummer and slide guitarist up for California, a wryly suspenseful drug trafficker’s talking blues. The first of the night’s two covers was a snarling version of Ryan Morgan‘s Maricopa, Arizona, which blows the cover off the Massachusetts-born sheriff who blew into town like he owned the place and made a name for himself picking on the most vulnerable people in the place, the undocumented immigrants who basically keep it moving. But not everybody’s willing to rat out their friends: “There ain’t enough whiskey to get my lips a-talking,” Swindall insisted.

She followed that with a moody, minor-key, bluesy kiss-off song, then took the ambience further down with the wistful breakup ballad Oh Savannnah and then brought the energy to redline with My Minglewood Blues, a defiantly vindictive hellraising anthem that does justice to the folk song that inspired it. It’s a good bet that if anybody’s alive a hundred years from now, pickers are going to be picking the Kelley Swindall song as much as they are the others. She wound up the set with another brooding, minor-key blues with some droll hip-hop flavor, an explosively applauded take of the even more vindictive Murder Song, which is fast becoming her signature tune, and then a vigorous cover of the Pogues’ Fairytale of New York in which she sang both the Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl roles. That’s where her acting training kicked in – all of a sudden the drawl and the torchiness were gone, replaced by a straightforward and understatedly dramatic East Coast accent. Anniston, Alabama, y’all are in for a treat.

Mike Rimbaud: The Closest Thing to the Clash That NYC Has Right Now

Much like Ward White, Mike Rimbaud has quietly and methodically built a vast catalog of wickedly smart, catchy, relevant lyrical rock songs. Where White has drawn on janglerock, Americana, chamber pop and most recently, an artsy glam sound, Rimbaud looks back to new wave and punk, but also to reggae, and jazz, and Phil Ochs. White’s narratives are elusive to the extreme; Rimbaud’s are disarmingly direct, with a savagely spot-on political sensibility. A strong case could be made that no other New York artist represents this city’s defiantly populist past – or, one hopes, its future – more than Mike Rimbaud. He’s playing the album release show for his characteristically excoriating new one, Put That Dream in Your Pipe and Smoke It (streaming at Spotify) at Bowery Electric at 8:30 PM on Jan 15. Cover is eight bucks.

The album title alone is intriguing. Is it a pipe dream to think that we could create a world that improves on the current paradigm of speculators taking their profits private and passing all their losses off to an increasingly destitute public? Should we take Rimbaud’s suggestion as a challenge, as fuel for our imagination…or is he just throwing a cynical swipe at dashed hopes? Whichever the case, isn’t that what song lyrics should do: draw you in, keep your interest, maybe make you laugh a little, and think at the same time?

The album opens with Frequent Flyer Subway Rider, a cruelly evocative narrative which will resonate with any New Yorker who shares Rimbaud’s feeling that we deserve a few free rides for all we’ve suffered with the trains over the years. Rimbaud plays all the guitars on the album, with Chris Fletcher on bass and Kevin Tooley on drums; Lee Feldman’s bluesy Rhodes piano perfectly matches Rimbaud’s gritty ambience here.

Friend is a snarling, reverbtoned new wave update on Highway 61 era Dylan, a slap at social media addicts that’s as funny as it is accurate: “Your BFF is only BS,” Rimbaud snickers. Likewise, Rimbaud takes a blackly amusing look at the all-too-real dangers of fracking in Shale ‘n’ Roll over brooding bolero-rock that wouldn’t be out of place on a Las Rubias Del Norte album, Marc Billon’s creepy electric piano matching Rimbaud’s watery menace.

Over a vamping psychedelic rock backdrop that offers a wink to Dave Brubeck, Know Nothing Know It All makes gleeful fun of limousine liberals, both among the electorate and the elected: “Owned by Coke, and the Koch brothers,” Rimbaud reminds, Feldman laying down a serpentine groove.

Erik Friedlander’s ambered cello lines anchor the swaying, jangly Apple Doesn’t Mean Apple Anymore and its sardonic wordplay, a look at how corporate newspeak subtly replaces everyday language. Poverty Is a Thief, a Gil Scott-Heron-inspired duet with soul singer Danni Gee, makes the connection between the credit trap and the prison-industrial complex.

Among the album’s more lighthearted numbers, Paris Is the Heart sends a shuffling, stream-of-consciousness latin-rock shout-out to that city’s haunts. The requisite Marley-esque reggae song here is Tears Don’t Fall in Outer Space; the album ends with a cover of the Clash’s Rock the Casbah, revealing it as the prophetic anthem it turned out to be. For what it’s worth, Rimbaud has never sung better than he does here. Where he used to snarl, he’s more likely to croon these days, which is somewhat ironic considering how much unbridled wrath there is in these songs. Another winner from a guy who refuses to quit.

A Volcanic, Intense New Album and a Union Hall Show from Jessi Robertson

Jessi Robertson has one of the most harrowing voices around. It’s one powerful instrument, which is why sometimes when she’s onstage – especially when she’s playing solo – she doesn’t bother to use a mic since she basically doesn’t need one. Yet she’s also one of the most captivatingly nuanced singers around, which is unusual for someone with such an unearthly, impassioned wail. Her new album, I Came From the War blends her signature folk noir with artfully sculpted, lingering, sometimes majestic art-rock over tempos which tend to be on the slow side. She’s playing the release show on Dec 5 at 9 PM at Union Hall in Park Slope on a killer doublebill with the similarly brooding, intense, enigmatic Richard Buckner. Cover is $15 and it’s a good bet this show will sell out, so get there early. The album’s not out yet but there are a couple of tracks up at Robertson’s webpage and also her Bandcamp page – and what’s best is that it will be available on vinyl in addition to the usual digital formats.

Robertson varies her delivery from song to song, often from one verse to another: a soaring, achingly wounded soul-inspired delivery, then raw gritty rock, or smoldering, torchy jazz phrasing. The subtext screams throughout these songs, sometimes literally: war and its aftermath as metaphor for the perils of romance. The opening track, You’re Gonna Burn sets the stage: deep inside, it’s a bitter, menacing blues, Omer Leibovitz’s resonant, sustained lead guitar lines fueling its big upward trajectory.

Paper Crowns follows the same kind of upward drive out of a minimalist intro, a hunter-captured-by-the-prey scenario with an absolutely spine-tingling, lurid crescendo from Robertson. Trouble, a hypnotic anthem and a big audience hit, is a particularly anguished take on the old dilemma of whether or not to give in to temptation: Robertson caps it off with a particularly messy image of of losing one’s virginity. Tin Man kicks off with a stately 6/8 sway, watery guitars contrasting with Alex Picca’s fuzzy bass, building an orate, goth-tinged 80s atmosphere: it’s a portrait of denial told from the point of view of the bad guy in a relationship.

Immolate revisits the fire metaphor, but in the voice of a combat survivor, gospel-fueled angst over 4AD atmospherics – the way Robertson lets a crack or two into her voice is viscerally intense. Picca’s catchy bassline and Layton Weedeman’s drums build a pounding, red-neon arena-rock ambience on Lipstick: “How can I get high when you always bring me down,” Robertson’s protagonist complains, hell-bent on another conquest of one kind or another.

The album really picks up toward the end, first with Microtone Tone, the most noir song here, a kiss-off anthem with hilariously mean lyrics. Likewise, Silly Old Thing is a more amped-up take on the kind of brooding Americana that Robertson first made a name for herself with in the past decade. The most haunting and intense song of all is Winter Coat, just Robertson’s low, anguished vocals and acoustic guitar, a chilling portrait of battles with inner demons – Lucinda Williams would be proud to have written something this vivid.  The final cut, Cipher, is much the same, Robertson on piano this time, a chillingly apocalyptic digital-age parable. Like all the best art, this album gives you pause and makes you question where you are, whether in your own life or in what’s around you: the most intimately personal as political.

A Rare Live Gig in August Spawns Two Auspicious October Shows

Was drummer/impresario John Sharples‘ excellent, rare gig as a bandleader back in August responsible for two of this weekend’s most enticing shows? Maybe yes, maybe no. In the case of the show tomorrow night, Oct 24 at Freddy’s, definitely yes, since he’s booked it. It’s an eclectic lineup starting at 9 with a similarly rare performance by the jangly, edgy band that songwriter Paula Carino made a name for herself with back in the late 90s, Regular Einstein. After that there’ll be short sets by Psychic Lines and guitarist Tim Simmonds’ Ex Extract project followed at 11 by Calm King, which is members of Beefheart cover band Admiral Porkbrain playing “improvisational postpunk chamber pop.”

And an artist Sharples drew on for her nuanced but powerful, torchy voice at that August show, Americana songwriter Robin Aigner, plays the album release show for her long-awaited new album of historically-infused oldtimey songs and chamber pop at Barbes this Saturday, Oct 26 at 8 on a great bill (this one not booked by Sharples) that starts with oldtime blues guitar monster Mamie Minch at 6 and continues at 10 with harmony-driven noir cumbia and bolero band Las Rubias Del Norte at 10.

What was the August show like? Drummers have deep address books since the good ones play with a ton of people, and Sharples is no exception. This particular night started with crystalline-voiced songwriter Rebecca Turner opening solo with a wryly epic, brooding contemplation of family tensions. Then she brought up her band – including John Pinamonti on lead guitar and studio mastering legend Scott Anthony on bass – for terse, quietly bristling versions of older material like The Way She Is now and newer songs including the metaphorical Cassandra and The Cat That Can Be Alone. She and the band closed with Brooklyn Is So Big, which ten years ago was a triumphant shout-out to the borough’s musical riches and now seems more like an obituary.

Sharples played both six and twelve-string guitar out in front of a band that included Ross Bonadonna on guitar and Tom Pope on drums, mixing up material from the cult classic 2004 I Can Explain Everything album along with unexpected treats like the tongue-in-cheek, metrically Carino favorite Robots Helping Robots and a blistering take of Brooklyn, by Celtic punk band Box of Crayons.

But the best song of the night was a straight-up janglerock version of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, the lushness and overtones of the twelve-string providing some of the original’s angst-fueled grandeur. Or it might have been the ominously swaying version of Tom Warnick’s noir blues anthem The Impostor. Or for that matter, Dylan’s Positively 4th Street reinvented as tightly wound janglerock. Or the lusciously jangling Matt Keating cover, Mind’s Eye, with Aigner adding her plaintive harmonies. It was one of those kind of shows.

The night wound up with a catchy solo set by guitarist/frontman Tim Reedy, of indie rockers Electric Engine. Nobody evokes the mid-90s anthemic REM sound like that band, and it was cool to hear Reedy’s witty lyrics and frequent baseball references without the ring of the amps behind him.

Summer Memories: Two Darkly Funny Solo Shows by Tunesmith Walter Ego

Good Cop: We’re baaaack!

Bad Cop: We refuse to be farmed out.

Good Cop: We’re back by popular demand! People like us! They request us!

Bad Cop: Au contraire. People hate us. Especially artists. Artists specifically request not to be reviewed by us. We scare them. [under his breath] Because we tell the truth.

Good Cop: But that’s not so scary! Maybe that’s why Blog Boss sent us to out to see not one but two Walter Ego shows this past summer. You notice we’ve gotten the call to cover all this summer’s primo shows?

Bad Cop: Hmm, maybe. But you know the real the reason we got the call to cover these two is because Blog Boss is a sadist. You think Blog Boss would have hesitated to go see Walter Ego if those two shows had been anywhere other than Sidewalk? This is Blog Boss’s way of saying to you and me, “You’re really nothing, the B team, you don’t really rate [waves his hand dismissively], you go to Sidewalk and suffer while I hang out in the VIP tent at Lincoln Center.”

Good Cop: Blog Boss’s loss. The sound at Sidewalk was actually pretty good both times Walter Ego played there, in mid-June and then last month. He’s playing there again this month on Sept 13 at 8 PM.

Bad Cop: Oh jesus, does this mean we have to go to Sidewalk again? Why can’t this guy play somewhere else?

Good Cop: C’mon, don’t tell me you haven’t noticed, the music at Sidewalk has improved a lot lately! You wanna know why that is? It’s because Somer is booking the place now…

Bad Cop [surprised, taken off guard]: Wow. That would explain a lot. I know her as a good singer and an excellent sound person so I guess this means she also has good taste. Although there’s still too much of the annoying Beck wannabes and dork-punk crowd there for my taste…

Good Cop: You’re so conditioned to everything in this city going to hell that you’re oblivious when anything good happens.

Bad Cop: I will say that I had fun both times we went to see Walter Ego. If I’m remembering correctly, the first one was quite the party…

Good Cop: No, that was the LJ Murphy show.

Bad Cop [rolls his eyes]: Omigod, you’re right. I don’t remember anything about that…

Good Cop: You’d better because we may be called on to report on it…

Bad Cop: You’re on your own with that one. But I do remember Walter Ego. The June show was longer and featured a lot more of his piano songs – in fact I think the August show didn’t have any piano songs. Which was too bad because I like the songs he plays on piano better than the ones he plays on guitar.

Good Cop: But the guitar songs were great too. The one that the audience really got into, which he played at both shows, was Dan Smith Will Teach You Guitar. A lot of Walter Ego’s songs are devastatingly funny and this is one of them.

Bad Cop: There’s a line in the song that goes, “He taught Berry to duckwalk and Frampton to boxtalk.” That kills me.

Good Cop: Yeah, I’m with you. In case you’re reading this and you’re not from New York, Dan Smith is sort of an urban legend: he’s a guitar teacher who festoons the city with flyers with his face on them…

Bad Cop: And has for 25 years and if the photo is to be believed, he hasn’t aged in 25 years. Needless to say, this is a sarcastic song and the crowd loved it. Another big hit was Mitterrand’s Last Meal. See, François Mitterrand was the President of France back in the 80s, he was ostensibly a socialist but, uh, you could say he kind of straddled the fence. And after a long battle with prostate cancer….

Good Cop: …which he may or may not have gotten from eating oysters from the English Channel that were contaminated by that awful French nuclear waste pipeline…

Bad Cop: …Mitterrand had one last meal before he literally pulled the plug on himself, more or less, and the meal began with an endangered bird that is actually a protected species and is illegal to eat in France. So right there you have a scenario that’s ripe for satire and Walter Ego made the most of it.

Good Cop: There were also a lot of other funny songs, more of those at the August show than the one in June. I really liked the one about simplifying your life, starting out with cutting back on clutter and ending up back in ocean as an amoeba…very Handsome Family, don’t you think?

Bad Cop: I liked the June show better. He did that creepy art-rock anthem I Am the Glass and really aired out his low register. Really Nick Cave-class, that good. And I think, I’m not clear on this, this was awhile ago, there was another morbid one, more of a straight-up noir cabaret tune, Half Past Late. If he didn’t do that one he did A Big Life, which is kind of a bittersweet waltz, a carpe diem message song that didn’t turn out to be trite or maudlin.

Good Cop: I liked the country song about the magician who makes magic disappear, in other words, what a killjoy. And that catchy, bouncy one that sounds like the Kinks, about getting knocked down, starting at the bottom of a new career, etcetera.

Bad Cop: Reputedly – I can’t personally vouch for this, but I’ll pass along the rumor – the September 13 gig will be the one where Walter Ego actually plays his original instrument, the bass, with a band behind him. It’s been awhile since he’s done that.

Good Cop: I can’t wait! Sidewalk, here we come!

Tift Merritt and Eric Heywood Play Intimate, Gorgeous Existentialist Americana at Lincoln Center

The last time Tift Merritt played a hometown show, she sold out Rough Trade in Williamsburg. Thursday night at the Lincoln Center Atrium, the seats were full, and there were plenty of people lined along the wall toward Columbus Avenue watching her take a break from the ongoing Andrew Bird tour for a rare duo show with guitar genius Eric Heywood. Where was everybody else? For most people in this city, Lincoln Center is a lot easier to get to than Williamsburg.

Whatever the case, the show was in a lot of ways a reprise of Emmylou Harris’ concert across the street the previous night. Where that one was a launching pad for innumerable, soulful, intense solos from guitarist Jedd Hughes and pedal steel player Steve Fishell, this one gave Heywood a platform for his purist, incisive, similarly lyrical chops, on both pedal steel and acoustic guitar. It helped that he had Merritt’s equally intense, tuneful songs to play those solos on.

Merritt has never sung better, varying her delivery from the angst-ridden, throaty chirp she’s been relying on over the last few years, to every possible shade of crystalline and clear. Midway through the show, she and Heywood moved to a central mic, then backed away from it and the volume actually rose as Merritt leaned back and belted. Admitting to being especially wired on caffeine, she made good on a promise to chat up the crowd. Some of her banter coyly hinted at background on her vivid yet enigmatic storytelling. She explained how the friend whose North Carolina beach house Merritt had rented had misidentified herself in one particular balmy, summery number. And Spring, Merritt’s hauntingly insistent anthem about living at peak intensity (this one lit up by Heywood’s creepy, smoky pedal steel) turned out to be inspired by the tree outside Merritt’s apartment window. But her most revealing comment was that “no song is about any one thing,” which capsulizes her m.o. as a writer.

Sweet Spot revealed itself not as a love song but as an individualist’s forlorn lament, longing for an escape to where she can be finally be herself. Moving to the piano, Merritt described Small Town Relations as “vicious,” and sang that portrait of smalltown nosiness with a dismissive vengefulness that hit a cruel, whispery sneer on the final verse while Heywood matched her simmering rage line for line. Later on, he colored the all-acoustic songs with elegant flatpicking, tersely bending leads that mirrored his work on the steel, and even flickering Pat Metheny-esque pastoral colors on a hypnotic, vamping number toward the end of the set. Merritt sent a graceful, Aimee Mann-tinged shout-out to buskers with one anthem, weighed existential angst versus contentment on Traveling Alone and Still Not Home, hit a plaintive, wistful peak early on in a raptly gorgeous take of Feel of the World and encored with a quietly triumphant version of Feeling of Beauty. Merritt and Heywood have since returned to the Andrew Bird tour (which, judging from their Central Park Summerstage show in late June, is amazing); the remaining dates are here.

A Killer Andrew Bird Concert Sets the Stage for a Similar Show from Tift Merritt

What’s the likelihood of seeing Andrew Bird and Tift Merritt on the same stage, let alone in the same band? It happened at Central Park Summerstage this month when the two Americana music icons joined forces, Bird on violin and a little guitar, Merritt on rhythm guitar as part of a dynamic five-piece band with pedal steel, bass and drums, jauntily exchanging verses with the Chicago songwriter in a set heavy with Handsome Family covers from Bird’s new album Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of.

“In my opinion, Brett and Rennie Sparks are the greatest living American songwriters,” Bird told the sold-out crowd, and he could be right. And Bird, whose own songs are as haunted, and morbid, and literate, and relevant as the Handsome Family’s catalog continues to be, is the ideal person to cover them, if anybody is. Bird and Merritt continue on Bird’s summer tour; Merritt gets a momentary break for a rare, free duo show of her own with Americana guitar genius Eric Heywood coming up on August 7 at 7:30 PM at the Lincoln Center Atrium. Early arrival is a must: 6 PM wouldn’t be too soon since she’s one of the rare artists who still sells out pretty much every room she plays.

Bird opened his show with a handful of intricately rhythmic, solo songs, fingerpicking his violin like a mandolin, his Spinning Double Speaker Horn behind him providing spooky, keening effects as he built layers of loops that spun back hypnotically through the mix. From there the band joined him, eventually gathering in a circle around a central mic before dispersing as the concert built momentum. They moved methodically through a nonchalantly bouncing take of the Handsome Family’s Danse Caribe, a moody, allusive version of Sifters, all the way through to the first encores, the fire-and-brimstone cautionary tale MX Missiles, which made a creepily apt segue with Handsome Family’s Cathedrals. On the way there, the young, touristy crowd were treated to uneasy versions of Tin Foil, Dear Old Greenland, Effigy and the understatedly savage post-9/11 anti-Bush/Cheney parable When the Helicopter Comes. The group also took their time through a lingering, ominous version of Pulaski at Night and the sardonic Something Biblical. With his wary, precise vocals matching the incisive focus of his violin playing, Bird was an intense presence, holding the group together as if they were on a secret mission. Merritt’s indomitable energy and soaring harmonies made a strong complement, livening the more upbeat, country-flavored numbers with her smoke-tinged wail.

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