Jessi Robertson‘s voice looms out from a deep, otherworldly, often tortured place. Her singing has little in common with Nina Simone and even less with Little Jimmy Scott, but she channels the same kind of deeply personal yet unselfconscious torment and emotional destitution as both of those artists. That’s not to say that all of Robertson’s songs are sad – a handful are actually pretty funny – but that her slowly rising melismas and full-throated wail come from the same place: the blues. While Robertson isn’t a blues singer per sen, she uses blues phrasing with the same emotional wallop as any artist who grew up in that idiom. In a very auspicious move, Robertson has teamed up with fellow guitarist Rony Corcos, who has a similarly intense command of the blues, even though she ‘s also not a blues artist in the purest sense of the word. The two played their debut show together last month at Pine Box Rock Shop in Bushwick, and it was scary. They’re bringing that same intensity to the American Folk Art Museum for a show as part of Lara Ewen‘s fantasttic series of free afterwork concerts on February 19 starting at around 5:30 PM.
The tantalizingly brief Bushwick set featured mostly songs from Robertson’s latest album I Came from the War. They opened with a real showstopper, You’re Gonna Burn, Corcos’ lingering phrases underscoring Robertson’s ominous and eventually venomous insistence, finally rising to the top of her range for a long single note that seemed it would never stop. After that, they made Trouble a study in contrasts, enigmatically resonant verse against an anthemic chorus, Corcos’ spare, rainy-day phrases mingling with Robertson’s open chords, bringing to mind the Throwing Muses at their 80s peak.
They swung their way into a Breathe, another study in parallels: hypnotic verse, wickedly catchy, soaring chorus, contemplating “an instrument of beauty and sorrow”- the same could have been said what both these musicians were channeling. Corcos shifted from shimmery raindroplets on that one to a wounded, deep delta blues hooks on the next: “How can I get high when you always bring me down?” Robertson intoned. Corcos went back to pointilllistic drizzle mode for the next number, a gorgeously crescendoing, bittersweet waltz, then delivered deep-space echo onYou Don’t Wany to Taste My Heart, told from the doomed viewpoint of a girl who sheds “her winter coat” at night and cuts herself. The two closed with a bitingly vamping minor-key breakup anthem. When Robertson wailed, “This is crazy, this is crazy,” the impact was visceral. It would have been interesting to see how many more people would have enjoyed it if the bar’s back room was more visible. If you think the back room at Otto’s seems forbiddingly off-limits to bar customers, you’ve never been to Pine Box Rock Shop.