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Tag: songwriter

Sarah McQuaid’s Starkly Lyrical New Live Album Captures a Dark Zeitgeist

Songwriter Sarah McQuaid was into the early part of a marathon 2020 tour when live music was criminalized throughout most of the world. Since she’d planned on making a live album while on the road, she made one closer to home, solo acoustic in the charming, medieval Cornwall church where she sings in a choir. The result is the vinyl record The St Buryan Sessions, streaming at Bandcamp. McQuaid has made a lot of good, darkly pensive albums over the years and this might be the best of them all, a quasi greatest hits collection that promises to have lasting historical resonance, capturing the zeitgeist of a moment that the world would rather never revisit.

Even the guarded, seductive optimism of What Are We Going to Do, in the stark solo electric version here, is far more muted than the original. The record is notable right off the bat for having the only recording of McQuaid singing Sweetness and Pain – a troubled but ultimately hopeful, plainchant-inspired mini-suite – as a contiguous whole. She does that a-cappella, taking advantage of the church’s rich natural reverb and what could be more than a two-second decay.

That reverb also enhances both McQuaid’s guitar and piano work. There’s a similarly resolute sense of hope through dark times in the second song, The Sun Goes On Rising. McQuaid’s voice is strong anyway, and here she reaches back for power to match the anxiousness and uncertainty.

If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous – what a song title for the fall of 2021, right? – brings to mind Richard Thompson‘s solo acoustic work, McQuaid starkly fingerpicking an enigmatic blues behind her loaded imagery. For the record, the vocal harmonies are live loops.

She switches to piano for The Silence Above Us, a brooding, slow, nocturnal waltz which seems practically prophetic, considering the events of 2020. One Sparrow Down is an understatedly grim little swing tune about a cat-and-bird game, McQuaid backing herself with just a kickdrum.

The sparkling open-tuned guitar melody of Charlie’s Gone Home, one of McQuaid’s earliest songs, contrasts with the elegaic narrative. The rainy-day jazz guitar backdrop dovetails more closely with the volcanic portents of Yellowstone, McQuaid capping it off with a slashing flourish.

Time to Love is the sparest, most hypnotic number here and makes a good segue with her similarly sparse cover of Autumn Leaves where she really airs out her upper register. Live vocal loops enhance the somber reflections on mass mortality that pervade In Derby Cathedral: yesterday the church crypt, tomorrow the world.

McQuaid loves open tunings, best exemplified by her eerily echoing, chiming, increasingly macabre phrasing over an ominously swooping bassline in the instrumental The Day of Wrath, That Day. She keeps the subdued atmosphere going in, the pall lifting a little in The Tug of the Moon.

She returns to piano, adding gravitas to Michael Chapman’s Rabbit Hills, pulling it closer toward pastoral Pink Floyd territory. The closing number, Last Song is a requiem for McQuaid’s mom – a musician herself – and a reflection on the enduring strength of intergenerational traditions.

Another Allusively Menacing, Lyrical Masterpiece From Ward White

Ward White is the Elvis Costello of the 21st century. Nobody does deviously whirlwind literary wordplay and catchy tunesmithing better. Like Costello, White is prolific – thirteen albums, including his latest, The Tender Age, streaming at Bandcamp. His influences are vast, he thinks outside the box, but he’s had the good sense to resist getting in over his head (Elvis C turned out to be great at string quartets but was, um, less successful with opera buffo and hip-hop). And White is arguably even darker than the past century’s greatest songwriter.

And he’s a hell of a lead guitarist, and a damn good bass player too. The new album features his longtime collaborators Tyler Chester on keys and the Wallflowers’ Mark Stepro on drums. This is their best album together: they’ve become White’s Attractions. Tenacious D bassist John Spiker engineered with his usual retro purism and flair.

Allusive violence and an ever-present menace have come to permeate most of White’s most recent material. The first track, Dirty Clouds, is a slow, funk-tinged number, Chester’s echoey Wurlitzer percolating beneath White’s dissociatively grim imagery. Check out the hilarious video – is this a metaphor for media terrormongering? Maybe a little bit. There are innumerable levels of meaning in White’s songs: they don’t just stand up to repeated listening, they require it. Catchy as his catalog is, it’s not for people with short attention spans or the faint of heart.

Track two, Easy Meat is one of White’s more sinisterly evocative narratives, vintage 80s powerpop pulsing along on a tense new wave beat, with a spacerock guitar solo at the center. Reduced to lowest terms, it’s about acting on impulses that would be unthinkable to anyone outside, say, the Gates Foundation or the California governor’s office.

Rhyme schemes, metaphors and reflections on anomie fly fast and furious in the Bowie-tinged Let’s Don’t Die At the Stoplight – like the gunfire White once found himself caught in while waiting at an intersection:

It’s not what he expects
But how he expects it
So quick to arrive
So grisly an exit
The eye takes an eye
And the windshield reflects it
You can put it into gear again….

White imagines Chet Baker in the afterlife, trying to pull himself together in Dentures, a mashup of piano-fueled Bowie balladry and Richard Thompson ghoulishness:

You’re either making art or getting paid
And the angel licked his nails and thought,
“All the really good ones die afraid.”
Put down your horn, you won’t need it
The day you’re born, you’re defeated…

Chester’s enigmatic organ solo is spot-on beyond belief.

On Foot, a brisk new wave/powerpop burner, is a murder ballad: the cruellest joke is musical rather than lyrical. The most Bowie-inspired song here is the album’s bittersweetly catchy title track, White channeling Mick Ronson with his solo in a surreal tale of a LA cop casually making a shocking existential choice.

One of White’s recurrent themes is the question of where everyday mishegas crosses the line, whether that might endanger merely the crazy person or everyone around them. Gail, Where’s Your Shoes is a prime example, complete with tantalizingly woozy guitar solo. Is this a thinly veiled portrait of a woman pouring herself out of a cab on a Williamsburg avenue in the fall of 2006? Hmm…..

White builds a more overtly cynical, vengeful narrative over Stonesy sarcasm in Wasn’t It Here: as he does throughout the album, Stepro’s casual flurries drive the murderous point home. White hits his chorus pedal for icy 80s gloss in Heavy Lifting, the album’s funniest number.

“Suicide rates are an urban myth if you look into it,” White’s titular Karate Dentist relates over a backdrop that could be Steely Dan at their most rocking, White closes the album with Monrovia, a distantly Turkish (or Smiths) tinged kiss-off anthem, and the only place where he stops trying to conceal the snarl beneath the surface. He’s no stranger to best-albums-of-the-year list here: his 2013 album Bob and his 2020 release Leonard at the Audit both topped the full-length charts here, and this may end up at the top of the crop of 2021 as well.

Haunting Vocals and Tunesmithing on Emily Frembgen’s Brilliant New Album

Up until the lockdown, Emily Frembgen was one of the hardest-working musicians on what’s left of the New York acoustic and Americana scenes. She held down residencies at the Knitting Factory and LIC Bar, but also didn’t limit herself to the usual spots. She was just as likely to play a donut shop or a house party. It was at a Bushwick donut shop in the fall of 2017 where she calmly and quietly picked up her acoustic guitar and played one of the most haunting songs written by anyone in this city in the last several years. That song is called Downtown: Frembgen’s narrator goes to meet her friends one last time before she either leaves, or kills herself, or both. The song is all the more chilling for not being specific.

It’s not on her new album It’s Me or the Dog – streaming at Bandcamp – but the record has plenty of other intriguing material, some of it brooding, some of it more quirky and playful. Frembgen is a skilled, purist tunesmith, a potently imagistic lyricist and has an unselfconscious, sometimes wounded. sometimes understatedly vengeful voice that will give you goosebumps.

“Little child, going nowhere, I can’t touch you when you turn away from me,” Frembgen relates gently in Butterfly, a chilling, tersely detailed portrait of clinical depression. That one’s just Frembgen and her acoustic guitar. She’s joined by lead guitarist Hugh Pool, bassist Charles Dechants and drummer Keith Robinson for Changes, which brings to mind Rosanne Cash’s early new wave/Americana mashups.

Organist Brian Mitchell adds aptly Blonde on Blonde-flavored organ and Nashville piano to Sad Affair: the harmonica completes the mid 60s Dylan ambience behind Frembgen’s witheringly cynical imagery.

Flower/Weed is a seething, low-key kiss-off song, Frembgen’s gentle fingerpicking mingling with Charles Burst’s twinkly electric piano. She goes back to backbeat Americana with Silver Lining, a catchy, guardedly optimistic anthem about two troubled souls pulling themselves out of a dark place, lowlit by Pool’s baritone guitar.

The contrasting imagery and airy vocals in Turn Around bring to mind another first-class Americana-inspired tunesmith, Liz Tormes. Frembgen elevates Julee Cruise girl-down-the-well moroseness to new levels of angst in New Feelin’ over Pool’s Lynchian twang.

She picks up the pace with Hometown, an optimistic country shuffle concealing a desperate escape narrative, and closes the record with He Held Onto Me, Mitchell’s sober gospel piano underscoring Frembgen’s despondency. It’s the only place on the album where she drops her guard. Frembgen has been writing catchy songs since the late zeros, but she’s reached a harrowing new level here with one of the best records of 2021.

A Colorfully Lyrical, Fast-Fingered Songwriter on the High Plains

Billy Lurken is the rare Americana songwriter who’s also a hell of a lead guitarist. His axe is acoustic. He gets a much bigger sound out of his guitar than most guys who usually play solo, and does the same on the banjo. He’s just as strong at bluegrass-style flatpicking as he is with the big jazzy chords of western swing and his own high-voltage take on the blues. He’s also a vivid chronicler of the anomie and quiet desperation everyday people face in Flyover America. Born in Minnesota and raised in South Dakota, he’s a fixture on the high plains circuit. His next gig is a free outdoor show on Sept 19 at 2 PM at Wilde Prairie Winery, 48052 259th St. in Brandon, South Dakota.

Lurken’s songs pick up on the little details but also capture the big picture. “It’s a Monday-through-Friday sort of dying” is one of the key lines in the Studs Terkel-influenced number he opened with on a segment of the No Cover, No Minimum show on South Dakota Public tv which you can stream here.

Movin’ On is a showcase for Lurken’s fast fingers on the frets: it’s a brisk early 50s style western swing-infused boogie about how the years can take their toll on a couple.

One of his most memorable story-songs is Home, a fast-picked chronicle of something less than bliss on the blue-collar domestic front. For all the detail – the dust-streaked Cadillac, the stoned girl on the back porch with her “Audrey Hepburn shades” – it’s what Lurken doesn’t say that packs the biggest punch.

And he has upbeat, optimistic songs to balance out the gloomy ones. There’s Girl in the Flowered Dress, a showcase for his chops. Tumbleweed, a studio recording, has a luscious, bluegrass-infused mix of guitar and banjo. And Rider, a cowboy tune, is a stark, nimbly fingerpicked Jimmie Rodgers-style blues.

If it might seem odd that a blog which has advocated for live music throughout the five boroughs of New York might be paying so much attention to South Dakota, that’s because South Dakota is a free state. There’s no apartheid there, no spyware required to go indoors at venues, restaurants and bars. That’s the way it is throughout the rest of the free states: Florida, Texas and across the plains. America’s Frontline Doctors have filed a civil rights lawsuit to overturn Mayor Bill DiBozo’s evil, unconstitutional edict, and at the moment a lot of businesses aren’t enforcing it. Until we succeed in liberating ourselves, you may see more of what’s happening in the land of “Great Faces, Great Places” here.

Sparely Powerful, Lyrical Catalan Songcraft From Singer Lia Sampai

One of the most stunningly direct, potently lyrical albums of the year is Lia Sampai’s latest release Amagatalls de Llum (rough unpoetic translation from Catalan: Hidden in Plain Sight), streaming at youtube. Sampai sings with a disarmingly intimate, nuanced delivery and writes striking, imagistic lyrics, with a fearless political sensibility. Her images can be charming and quirky one second and venomous the next. While there’s a definite flamenco influence in her music, there are also elements of Portuguese fado, pan-Mediterranean balladry, art-rock and tinges of jazz, nimbly negotiated by acoustic guitarist Adrià Pagès. Some of the songs are simply guitar and vocals, others feature terse strings in places.

She opens with La Caixeta (The Box), a stately, romantic waltz that’s part fado, part flamenco and part vintage Parisian chanson. The doll imagery in the sparse, angst-fueled second track, La Nina comes across as more of a reflection on reconnecting with an inner conscience than with an inner child, Lia Manchón’s violin and Ester Trilla’s cello adding pensive ambience.

La Nit del Foc (Night of Fire) is a coy mashup of a dramatic Spanish waltz and a Dylanesque talking blues. Sampai follows a suspenseful trail of eerie, allusive images, up to a duende-fueled peak in Pinyols de Gel (Hailstorm), Pagès’ attack growing more unhinged along with her.

The shapeshifting political broadside Una Llum (A Light) is a real stunner, a slap upside the head of a petty tyrant whose insatiable desire for control backfires and ignites a revolution. Sampai wrote this in 2019, but it has infinite more resonance in the year where the World Economic Forum terrorists are throwing everything they have at us to try to keep their global takeover attempt from going off the rails.

Iris is a delicately waltzing, enigmatic, metaphorically loaded narrative about a dancer (or maybe a stripper). Weeping willow metaphors take centerstage in the stark, grim Salze Vell:

Que dins de tant de vent lo plor és silenci,
Com una paraula que interdiu algú.
I les fulles se revolten encriptades
D’una música que sols entenem junts
Plorem per amunt!
Plorem per amunt!
Alcem un crit de pena i llibertat

[rough translation]

A scream drowned by the wind
Like a forbidden word
And the leaves spin, encrypted
With a music that only we understand
Let’s scream it!
Let’s scream it!
Scream from sadness, for freedom

The catchy, lilting Joc de Miralls (Game of Mirrors) seems to an examination of how recognizing your shadow in someone else can be liberating, if a little scary.

Pagès’ starry electric guitar rings out over Emili Bosch’s synth in Astronautes, a playful outer-space love song. Sampai winds up the album with the understatedly haunting L’Endemà (The Day After), the strings lush and moody as Gerard Morató’s piano mingles with Lluís Pérez-Villegas’ glockenspiel. Sampai’s Christmas party narrative is joyous and not a little defiant, but there’s a sinister undercurrent. What a perfect song for a year when dictators are trying to tell us how many people we can invite to our private holiday celebrations.

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.

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 Diekhoff 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,” Diekhoff 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. Diekhoff 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. Diekhoff 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.

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.

Rapturous Musical Cross-Pollination at Women Between Arts at the New School

Yesterday was the fourth installment of Luisa Muhr’s new interdisciplinary series Women Between Arts at the New School. One would think that there would be several series in this city devoted to women whose work crosses the line between different artistic disciplines, but this appears to be the only one at present. What’s new with Muhr’s series is that it isn’t just a place for women artists who defy categorization: it’s also a space where adventurous established artists can branch out beyond their usual practice.

Case in point: Jean Rohe. She’s known as a songwriter and a strong, distinctive acoustic guitarist (to call her a folksinger would be reductionistic). Throughout her tantalizingly brief performance yesterday’s show, she did a lot of storytelling.

This narrative was harrowing. Rohe was named after her paternal grandmother, who killed herself on December 9, 1961. Tragically, just like her father, Rohe didn’t find out about the suicide until years later. That revelation springboarded an “odyssey,” as she termed it, to find out the truth and what pushed the woman over the edge.

Like many of the projects that find their way to Women Between Arts, it’s a work in progress, and a hauntingly captivating one. Rohe’s fingerpicking channeled distant delta blues grimness with her opening number, then she referenced the Penelope myth with a more expansive, anthemic tune. Her final song, she told the crowd, was set in Hades: “In New Jersey, as we all know,” she mused, drawing a handful of chuckles. The narrative saw her climbing into her grandmother’s old black Buick at a stoplight, to find her crying and incommunicado, a ghost before her time.

Noa Fort is known as a composer of translucent piano jazz informed by classical music as well as her own Israeli heritage. After guiding the crowd through a brief meditation, she had them write down their innermost feelings on slips of paper so she could channel and maybe exorcise those issues. As it turned out, this was a very  uneasy crowd. Fort plucked around inside the piano gingerly, George Crumb style before launching into a series of eerie belltones, close harmonies and finally a woundedly descending anthem. She closed with a somewhat elegaic but ultimately optimistic ballad where a calmly participatory crowd carried the melody upwards. 

Trina Basu, one of the great violinists in Indian classical music, leads the pioneering carnatic string band Karavika. This time out, she played a rapturous homage to 16th century mystic Meera Bai, joined by Orakel tabla player Roshni Samlal and singer Priya Darshini. Basu explained that she’d discovered the controversial, pioneering proto-feminist poet via the work of 1960s singer Lakshmi Shankar.

Basu opened the trio’s first epic number with elegant spirals that spun off into sepulchral harmonics, then built steam, rising up and down in a series of graceful pizzicato exchanges with the tabla. Darshini sang the second long piece, Basu and Samlal matching its poignancy, an ancient raga theme sliced and diced through the prism of progressive jazz. 

 The next installment of Women Between Arts is Jan 21 at 3 PM at the New School’s Glass Box Theatre (i.e. the new Stone) at 55 W 13th St., with Meredith Monk collaborator Ellen Fisher, lustrously haunting singer/composer Sara Serpa with cellist Erik Friedlander and saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, and Appalachian music maven Anna Roberts-Gevalt.

Phil Ochs – A Halloween Appreciation

What’s more Halloween than a guy who killed himself? Phil Ochs arguably left the planet as his era’s greatest English-language songwriter. But where his old pal and arch-rival Bob Dylan was still cranking out albums – at that moment, the uneven if imaginatively Romany-flavored Desire – Ochs’ career had stalled years before. He never got past a massive creative block and the damage to his vocal cords from a 1973 mugging in Tanzania, dead three years later at 36 after a long downward spiral.

But he left a body of work arguably greater than what Dylan had accumulated to that point. Where Dylan had invented psychedelic folk, Ochs’ mid-60s albums Tape From California and Pleasures of the Harbor took an extremely successful turn into 20th century classical music and art-song. His populist relevance, catchy tunesmithing, clever wordplay and innumerable levels of meaning were every bit as formidable as Dylan’s. And Ochs’ 1968 album Rehearsals For Retirement remains the most harrowingly detailed, metaphorically foreshadowed musical suicide note ever written.

So there’s no lack of irony that the opening track on the recently released Live in Montreal 10/22/66, streaming at Spotify, is Cross My Heart – as in, “Cross my heart, and I hope to live.”

As is the case with pretty much every artist these days, there are innumerable Ochs concert recordings bouncing around, most of them pretty dodgy. This lavish solo acoustic set from a part of the world where Ochs played some of his best shows is a soundboard recording, but a very good one. And the setlist is sublime – it’s as close to a definitive solo acoustic Ochs album as there is.

“You always come back, if only to yourself,” he muses between songs early in the show. Right off the bat, alienation and disillusion are front and center. “The answer is limbo and the harvest will be hard,” he sings in the otherwise much more optimistic, Britfolk-tinged Song of My Returning.

Serendipitously, it seems that most of Ochs’ between-song commentary was recorded as well, and he’s at the top of his surrealistic, sardonic game. He introduces a nimbly fingerpicked take of The Bells – his setting of the Edgar Allen Poe poem – with a joke about how Poe’s work has been banned from classrooms. “The word was tintinnabulation – they couldn’t find it in the dictionary, so they assumed it was LSD.” And his sly introduction to the metaphors of Cops of the World is pretty priceless.

All of Ochs’ richly worded lit-rock novelty hits are here: Outside of a Small Circle of Friends, Miranda, and The Party. As with a lot of the songs here, they actually rock a lot harder than in the albums’ far more ornate parlor-pop arrangements. As you would expect from a show from this point in time, the set is light on Ochs’ early, more prosaic, folkie material. We get the plainspoken ballad Joe Hill – a salute to the Utah labor leader executed for a crime he didn’t commit – as well as a defiant I Ain’t Marching Anymore, a low-key, knowing take of There But For Fortune, I’m Gonna Say It Now – the one number here that hasn’t aged well – and the encore, the cynically spot-on if rather obvious broadside Chaplain of the War.

Beyond the fact that the lyrics really jump out at you, what’s most striking is how strong a guitarist Ochs is. He toys with his strum, opening Flower Lady with a Like a Rolling Stone quote; as vivid ad verdant as Lincoln Mayorga’s piano is on the album version, this is might be even better. And his flatpicking in the more traditionally-oriented numbers is fast and fluid.

Yet as funny and insightful as Ochs is here, torment runs deep. “Portrait of the pain never answers back,” he sings nonchalantly in Flower Lady. A little later on, in an especially epic take of Crucifixion – his JFK assassination parable – it’s “Do you have a portrait of the pain?”

“The hour will be short for leisure on the land,” he reminds in Pleasures of the Harbor, the allusively grisly if elegant account of a sleazy seaside hookup and its aftermath. “The lonely in disguise are clinging to the crowd.” Shades are drawn at pivotal moments in three separate songs. On record, the sarcasm and angst in I’ve Had Her are muted: here, they practically scream.

The real revelation is an early version of Doesn’t Lenny Live Here Anymore, which would become the understatedly shattering centerpiece of Rehearsals For Retirement. Ochs introduces it as “A study in levels of depression.” It’s a work in progress, in straight-up 4/4 rather than the slinky 6/8 album version, its doomed narrative a little different this time out:

Fiddler takes a sniff and picks up the fiddle
As you race from wall to wall, stumble down in the middle
And you’re torn apart
No lower point to start
And you feel you’d like to steal a happy heart

And while this album is a period piece, student protestors around the world still get shot. People still go to jail for weed. And in the Silicon Valley slavers’ gig economy, mentions of plaques in union halls may be quaint – but also a painful reminder that eternal vigilance is no less the price of liberty than it was in 1966.