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A Month’s Worth of Nightcrawling, Part Three

Those of us who run music blogs are discouraged from every side from publishing concert coverage.  The publicists all want us to “preview” live shows, which is understandable: let’s get the crowd out to the gig!!! The reality is that we are in a deep, deep economic depression. The corporate media pretend it doesn’t exist because to acknowledge it would anger advertisers. The Bushwick blogs are oblivious to it because indie rock is by and large made by and for trust-funded children whose only connection with the daily reality experienced by most New Yorkers is their late-night slobbberfest at whatever trendy taco truck stays open the latest. But in spite of it all, incredible live music that has no connection whatsoever to the indie trust fund machine persists. So this final segment in three parts is dedicated to the working poor who make up an unpublicized majority of the audience at most New York concerts.

Walter Ego headlined Sunday Salon 25 at Zirzamin. The Sunday Salon began right after the hurricane last fall: it continues, unabated, a gathering of some of New York’s edgiest songwriters and musicians trading licks and songs. In an hour onstage, Walter Ego played every instrument within reach. Backed by brilliant drummer Josh Fleischmann, he began on guitar, switched to piano, eventually took over on bass for a slinky version of the Beatles’ Baby You’re a Rich Man and ended up behind the drum kit. In between, he acknowledged the horror of being behind the wheel of a subway train that runs over a passenger, went deep into Lennonesque piano mysticism, fired off jaunty, wryly amusing songs making fun of new agers and killjoys, evoking the Zombies, Beatles, Elvis Costello and ELO along the way.

Balkan chanteuse Eva Salina played a gorgeously eclectic solo show the following Friday night at the American Folk Art Museum. She’s a musician’s musician, taking the time to explain her background and how she survives in a world of magical musical niches, an American girl determined by the time she was in grade school to master styles she had little background in. Playing and singing solo with just her accordion, she held a standing-room-only crowd rapt with haunting songs from Bulgaria, Macedonia, Greece and the Jewish diaspora. Rising from a hushed, sultry alto to an anguished, microtonal wail, she held the crowd breathless as she brought to life ancient stories of mismatched marriages gone drastically awry, love lost to wartime casualties fighting the Ottoman empire, and an unexpected detour into American Appalachian folk music, another one of her specialities. A rugged individualist from day one, she now teaches music all over the world and collaborates with a similarly diverse cast of the world’s most sought-after players, from trumpeter Fank London (with whom she has a new album coming out) and modern accordionist Merima Kljuco. Her new solo album is a subtly beautiful hint of the careening chromatic intensity she pursues with London and an all-star cast of Eastern European players.

What is the likelihood that on a Monday night, an 11:30 PM Brooklyn show would be sold out? If it’s Rev. Vince Anderson, that’s always a possibility. He’s reached the point where he’s just about outgrown his weekly Monday residency at Union Pool, which is not a small venue. With a raw roar, he crashed into his signature song, Get Out of My Way and kept a packed house dancing throughout a somewhat abbreviated first set this past Monday night. Is there any jam band in New York who can match Anderson and his Love Choir? Doubtful. Firing off funk riffage on his trusty Nord Electro keyboard and backed by brilliant downtown baritone saxophonist Paula Henderson and Dave Smith on trombone plus guitar, bass and drums, he kept a resonant, murky minor-key mix going, then quoted both Hendrix and Jesus Christ Superstar in a slinky version of his own song Down to the River. A new number, Fallen from the Pray explored an existential crisis for the “dirty gospel” bandleader and minister (click here for his most recent sermon). “People are curious. They see me on the train and they come up to me and ask me, am I the Rev. Vince Anderson, and I say yes. Then they ask me why I’m depressed. and I say, do I look depressed? Am I acting for you? You mean I’m not animated like I am onstage? Then they ask me if I’m a believer. Today? Stone cold atheist, tomorrow who knows?”

The Rev., as he is lovingly known, is not an atheist. He followed that angst-ridden romp with a solo piano version of Precious Lord, Take My Hand. then a deep-fried soul vamp titled I Like My Lettuce Fried (you can actually do it if you use the heart of the vegetable) and then his hot sauce theme, Tangalicious. And that was just the first set. By the time that was over, there was no possible way to get into the room at Union Pool: you have been warned.

Alison Tartalia has an impossible 11 PM Tuesday residency this month at Spike Hill. It’s a great venue to not have to worry about drawing a crowd: it’s right by the train, the bartenders are super friendly and it’s the antithesis of the fussy trendoid bars immediately to the south. And the sound is great. Her first night here saw her working creepy noir cabaret, stagy theatrical piano songs, a ferocious blast of guitar rock and more delicate, pensive sounds. If you’re in the neighborhood, check her out – you’ve got a month to do it.

From an audience perspective, there were also a couple of shows last month that should not have happened  That ferocious Balkan brass band that plays that beer garden in Williamsburg shouldn’t advertise their shows there: dudes; just take the money and run. When the bartenders blast cheesy eastern European jazz while you’re playing, it’s time to quit while you’re ahead – and you are not easy to drown out wth the PA system. And that blues guitarist who’s gotten so much ink here on the live calendar needs to play some solo shows instead of with that hack who’s been kicking around the hippie scene here since the 70s.

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A Month’s Worth of Nightcrawling, Part One

Don’t you just want to smack people upside the head when they say ignorant things like “There’s no good music in this city anymore?” Obviously, those people are either spending time in the wrong neighborhoods (Bushwick), or they aren’t paying attention. This past month has been amazing as far as live shows in New York are concerned. What’s the likelihood of seeing Katie Elevitch and Matt Keating back to back, for free? It happened, after Sunday Salon 23 at Zirzamin. She was the special guest to play after a characteristically lively exchange of tunes bristling with puns, double entendres and catchy hooks from the likes of Walter Ego, LJ Murphy, Lorraine Leckie, Tamara Hey and other usual suspects. Keating was a last-minute booking.

Elevitch’s music is more about setting a mood and building to a feral crescendo, or a quieter, more mystical ambience; Keating’s songs are narratives set to catchy changes that build to a similar angst-fueled intensity. While Elevitch’s music looks to soul and jazz and Keating draws on Americana for his tunes, ultimately they both reach back to punk rock for their energy. Keating is a cynic; Elevitch finds hope against hope despite crushing reality (during last year’s hurricane, a tree came crashing through the roof of her house and caught her on the head – she seems none the worse for it). Keating has a cult following across the country and in Europe; Elevitch plays the Hudson valley circuit and is well liked there.

What were they doing in Manhattan? Having fun. Elevitch played solo on acoustic guitar, stripping down a mix of new material and songs from her previous album Kindling for the Fire to their skeletons. From a sultry whisper to a full-on roar, she worked her way through pain and exasperation and emerged triumphant and sweaty from the workout. Likewise, Keating ran through a mix of slowly unwinding favorites like Lonely Blue and The Fruit You Can’t Eat as well as a handful of more soul-influenced songs from his latest album Wrong Way Home. But the highlight of the set was a LMFAO cover of Twist and Shout, done as Lou Reed would do it, Keating said. And he nailed it. It’s as good a song to parody Reed with as you could imagine: where the melody jumps around, Keating did just the opposite. It wouldn’t be fair to give away any more of the joke – when the video comes out, it’s going to go viral. Watch this space for future Elevitch shows in NYC; Keating is back at Zirzamin at 8 PM playing after the Dog Show’s equally lyrical, intense Jerome O’Brien on May 13.

The following Saturday night, Dawn Oberg played her second-ever New York show (the first one was the previous night at Desmond’s). A popular draw in her native San Francisco, she’d come to do the dives of New York. Somehow she’d found herself at the dreaded Bar East (the former Hogs and Heifers space on the upper east), playing solo on electric piano. What’s the likehood of getting what was essentially a private show from someone so entertaining? Well, it happened – only in New York, folks. Much as her new album Rye may be one of the year’s best, Oberg is even better in person: she airs out her vocal range, she’s a terrific gospel/soul pianist and she brings her intricate torrents of wordplay, endless puns and literary references to life with more energy than you would expect, considering how subtly and carefully rendered the studio versions are. And for someone whose music is fueled by a seething anger spun through layer upon layer of sardonic humor, she’s more lively and upbeat in person (it’s tempting to call her vivacious or even sweet, but she might take exception to that). She opened the set with the deviously funny Old Hussies Never Die, a track from her previous album Horticulture Wars (she cannot resist a pun, ever), then later did the wry (pun intended) title track from the new one along with the unselfconsciously wrenching, doomed, elegaic Cracks and the wickedly catchy, personal-as-apocalyptic alienation anthem End of the Continent, working its earthquake metaphors for all they were worth. From here she went on to far better-attended shows in Nashville and Austin before winding up her tour in her hometown. Here’s hoping she makes it back to town sometime.

The following night, salonniers John Hodel and LJ Murphy kicked off the feature set at Sunday Salon 24 with nonchalantly slashing songs about imperfect strangers who should avoid each other no matter what, and also the kind of crowds you find in bars on a typical Tuesday morning: not pretty. But the music afterward was. Americana songwriter Sharon Goldman had been booked for a solo show, but fortuitously, her pals Nina Schmir and cellist Martha Colby were in town. Back in 2009, Goldman and Schmir released a tremendously good, eclectic album as the Sweet Bitters, so this was a rare NYC reunion of sorts. Both Goldman and Schmir are brilliant singers – Goldman being more crystalline and Schmir more misty – and gave the sound guy a workout as they switched back and forth between mics, necessitating constant tweaks to make sure both voices were where they needed to be in the mix. The harmonies were exquisite, especially as Colby grounded the songs with a moody, haunting sustain. The show reached a peak with Goldman’s haunting, ominous Clocks Fall Back, a chilling early winter narrative set to a ringing, funereal guitar melody. “Women in gowns sparkle downtown as the tired crowd walks their route,” the duo sang, painting as evocative a portrait of current depression-era New York as anyone has written. Finally getting a chance to hear this song live was arguably the high point of the year, concert-wise. The trio also made their way nimbly through the machinegunning vocal gymnastics of Schmir’s Tom Thumb (On Brighton Beach) as well as Goldman’s nonchalantly ominous 9/11 memoir, Tuesday Morning Sun. Goldman will be at the First Acoustics Coffeehouse in downtown Brooklyn on June 1, joining her co-conspirators of the Chicks with Dip songwriters’ collective in their celebration of their remake of Joni Mitchell’s Blue.

Catching Up on Concerts…Again

The point of this blog’s Sunday Salon at Zirzamin is to create a scene. There are other good scenes in New York: all the good things happening at Barbes; oldtime Americana at the Jalopy; latin jazz at the Jazz Gallery, Jan Bell’s country and blues thing at 68 Jay St. Bar, Alexandra Joan‘s thematic classical series at WMP Concert Hall. But there’s no central rock scene in New York, unless you count the loser indie rock thing, whatever that is, in bush-WECK, as the gentrifier children there say in their funny accents. Because this blog’s focus is global, it’s been awhile since there’s been any report here on all the under-the-radar happenings at Zirzamin and elsewhere around town. So here we go!

Eclectic Canadian songwriter/chanteuse Lily Frost and her brilliant multi-instrumentalist husband Jose Contreras (not the guy who inadvertently springboarded the phrase “evil empire“) began their  most recent show at Zirzamin by cranking up Contreras’ phone, setting the mood with a delicious mix of vintage Hawaiian guitar tunes. Much as Frost had her sultry voodoo lounge voice in full effect, she was a whirlwind onstage, alternating between vocals, guitar, keys, percussion and theremin. She and Contreras gave a southwestern gothic menace to hazy Mazzy Star jangle, did Billie Holiday as gypsy jazz and Pink Floyd’s San Tropez as the cruel proto-Margaritaville satire that Roger Waters didn’t have the range to pull off. But Frost’s originals were the most memorable: lush Gainsbourg/Birkin style psychedelic pop, the deceptively biting if sugary bounce of Do What You Love and an especially menacing, noir cabaret-infused take of Grenade, the darkest song on her latest album. At the end of the set they channeled the Dream Syndicate and encored with an unexpectedly carefree Buddy Holly cover. Frost has been making frequent return trips here: let’s hope she makes it down again soon.

The featured artists at Sunday Salon 17 were Black Sea Hotel and they were as breathtakingly haunting and otherworldly as always. The trio of Sarah Small, Corinna Snyder and Willa Roberts have made a name for themselves in Balkan music circles for their original arrangements of large-scale Bulgarian choral works: that these Americans were invited to perform at the Bulgarian consulate pretty much speaks for itself. Small’s register-smashing range, Roberts’ wild ornamentation and Snyder’s powerful, soul-mutating wail matched against each other with eerie close harmonies, minutely gleaming microtones, rapidfire lyrical gymnastics balanced by lushly sustained passages. When Roberts announced that one of their songs had been featured in a horror film, that came as no surprise. They took care to explain the songs’ topics, from the idea of shoes as ghetto bling among the peasantry, to strange, shapeshifing, lethal dragon-men, to the town of Zborinka which apparently drew all the guys in centuries past since it was rumored you could always get a girl there. The more things change, etc. The trio closed with a new song which included a verse translated to English, and a brand-new arrangement with slinky polyrhythms and interwoven harmonies so tight they could have been a string section. Their debut album from a couple of years back is amazing, and they’re working on a follow-up. Canadian gothic songstress Lorraine Leckie – who’s been the most consistent star of the Sunday Salon since it debuted right after the hurricane last year – kept the lushly haunting intensity going with a stripped-down trio performance highlighted by several numbers from her most recent chamber pop album, Rudely Interrupted, a collaboration with social critic/journalist/personality Anthony Haden-Guest. And she and her band the Demons are back at Zirzamin on May 5 at 7.

The following Saturday at the National Underground, powerhouse ragtime pianist Jack Spann opened with a sizzling solo set of originals ranging from the haunting Roly-Poly Man – a chilling story of murder and karmic payback – to an unexpectedly pensive, catchy ballad written by his wife. Spann then joined lyrical rocker Walter Ego, amping up one of his bluesier numbers. Walter (to call him “Ego” just doesn’t sound right) was similarly on his game, running through a set that ranged from a morbid art-rock piano number told from the point of view of a subway motorman who’s just hit someone on the tracks, to the gorgeously, cruelly metaphorical I Am the Glass, to a couple of catchy guitar tunes that evoked influences as diverse as the Kinks, Elvis Costello and of course the Fab Four (this guy knows the Beatles like few others). The best of these – it’s hard to choose – could have been a sardonically catchy, jangly number about minimizing one’s life, to the point where the womb and points even lower on the evolutionary scale begin to look appealing. Walter Ego is at Zirzzmin after the Salon on Apr 28 at 7.

Raquel Bell headlined Sunday Salon 18 with her Mesiko bandmate, guitarist David Marshall  joining her for a characteristically uneasy, electric Neil Young-flavored tune. Bell has a history of brilliant collaborations: she co-led Norden Bombsight, an art-rock band who will be legendary someday when they’re rediscovered; lately she’s been singing and playing keys with violist Jessica Pavone in Normal Love, as well as fronting Mesiko with their dusky Americana menace. Bell has grown into an adept guitarist, playing solo on electric, shifting from distant jangly ominousness to an unexpectedly cheery, funky pop song titled Harry Partch. Then she switched to her vintage analog synth, sounding like a young Patti Smith backed by Tangerine Dream. The occasional moments where the synth went out of tune only added to the creepily carnivalesque atmospherics. Her voice lept and dove as the loops pulsed; she ended her set with a brooding, Marble Index-ish tone poem of sorts. She and Mesiko are at Zirzamin every Sunday for the remainder of April at around 10:30 PM.

Salons and Suspects

This blog’s raison d’etre extends beyond publicizing the Sunday Salon at Zirzamin. But while the Salon was created to provide a forum for the best rock and rock-related songwriters in town to work up new material, it’s also designed to be a show that, if all the performers are on their game, is as fun to watch as it is to play. The last few weeks have been pretty amazing, with steady contributions from art-rock cellist Serena Jost (who’s got a brand-new album coming out next month, and a gig here on the 17th at 7); barroom sage John Hodel, who brought out an understated and absolutely haunting elegy for the Newtown massacre; Walter Ego (more about him a little later on this page), Chris Fuller, who held the crowd rapt with his edgy gypsy and bluesy sounds; and LJ Murphy, who with his band the Accomplices scorched through one of the hardest-rocking, intense sets the club has ever seen, to wind up Salon #14.

Chanteuse Carol Lipnik and pianist Matt Kanelos headlined Salon #15: both are pushing the envelope harder than ever toward the avant garde, with a spacious, pillowy, psychedelic yet often clenched-teeth intensity. The high points of their show were their hypnotic, apprehensively trance-inducing originals, although their covers were just as interesting. A few of the highlights were a nocturnal, enveloping version of Harry Nilsson’s Life Line; a jaggedly stunning, percussive version of Nick Drake’s Black-Eyed Dog with some cruelly difficult crosshanded work by Kanelos; and a tale of Richard Thompson’s The Great Valerio so intense that you could hear a pin drop between chords, They’re playing Joe’s Pub on an excellent doublebill with historically-informed, theatrical Poor Baby Bree this Sunday the 17th.

The joke going around the club afterward was that this was the coldest night of the year, yet Asheville, North Carolina bluegrass band Town Mountain packed the place. It makes you wonder how much crazier the crowd would have been if this was a summer evening. Frontman/guitarist Robert Greer sang with a soulful twang over Jesse Langlais’ rippling banjo, Bobby Britt’s fiddle and John Stickley’s bass. They did the first instrumental that Britt ever wrote, a killer tune with lots of unexpected changes, along with a mix of originals and covers that ran the gamut from the moody moonshine anthem Midnight Road, to a version of John Anderson’s Wild and Blue that gave new meaning to the song’s half-crazed drunken menace, to a couple of lickety-split romps including what seemed like a bluegrass update on the old Irish ballad Whiskey, Oh Whiskey. “Now for the doxology,” Greer announced to no one in particular, and then launched into the pensive drinking ballad Leave the Bottle, the shapeshifting title track to their excellent new album. It was a fun show, a cool reminder of how much good new bluegrass there is pushing up through the weeds not only here but everywhere.

The following night, former Dog Show bandleader Jerome O’Brien took the stage with that group’s lead guitarist Jack Martin for the first time since a Kid Congo Powers show sometime in the mid-90s. Both musicians share a wry sense of humor, Martin’s biting slide work and emphatic, hard-hitting phrases complementing O’Brien’s sardonic lyrical torrents. As underground NYC rock nostalgia, this was just about as good as catching the band at their peak at the C-Note or Tonic about ten years ago. As low-key as the show was – just two guys with guitars – the positive energy was through the roof, through the nonchalantly cruel Saturday Nights Are for Amateurs, a bouncy reinvention of If I Laugh Anymore I’ll Break – a slyly exuberant celebration of pre-gentrification nocturnal entertainment – and a knowing take of the big audience hit This One Thing. O’Brien has a monthly residency here and if all goes according to plan will be back at Zirzamin on April 8 at 7 PM.

Beninghove’s Hangmen played afterward. They’re another band with a residency here, Mondays at around 9:30, and as usual they rampaged through an assaultively psychedelic set of noir jazz and original film themes as well as the macabre surf rock of Surf n’ Turk and Surfin’ Satie. Frontman/saxophonist Bryan Beninghove likes Middle Eastern sounds, finds the missing link between Ethiopian melody and Erik Satie and knows his way around a latin tune. Guitarist Dane Johnson led them in a surprisingly low-key, oldschool version of Tequila before they got rolling, through a moody reggae vamp and a creepy new waltz. A little later they took Quatro Loko, a salsa groove that’s so cheery it just begs to be ripped to shreds, and did exactly that, with high-voltage soprano sax from Beninghove and a careening, tumbling Rick Parker trombone solo. They closed with a cover of Led Zep’s Kashmir that did justice to the original, right down to the bassline, while turning loose the stoned monster inside.

Salon #16 was one of the best ones so far, featuring an absolutely sizzling set by Trio Tritticali, who did double duty as the house string section, most notably in providing a lush, haunting backdrop for a couple of creepy Lorraine Leckie chamber pop songs. Who says classically trained players can’t improvise? Violist Leanne Darling, cellist Loren Dempster and violinist Helen Yee are brilliant composer-performers, “daring to go where no string trio has gone before,” as Darling made clear early on. They gave a raw nonchalant intensity to Osvaldo Pugliese’s tango La Yumba, Yee’s arrangement of Mark Orton’s Helium also spiced with brooding Argentinian flavor. Was the best song of the night Darling’s artful new arrangement of the Mohammed Abdel Wahab bellydance classic Zeima, or her ingenious baroque ska take on A Message to You Rudie, or Yee’s powerfully crescendoing Candles in the Windows, or Dempster’s haunting, chromatically-fueled anthem Who Knows Yet? It’s impossible to choose. The three wrapped up the show with Darling’s funky, Bowie-esque Issue No. 1 (title track to their most recent album) in an explosive flurry of chamber metal. They’re at Freddy’s on March 22 at 8.

Getting Caught Up on Concerts

Much as gentrification has dealt a crippling blow to music and the arts in general in this city, a gritty individualistic spirit persists. “Raided all my hangouts, put away my friends, now I’m sitting on a bonfire in a night that never ends,” LJ Murphy intoned ominously as his band the Accomplices played the careening noir blues of his song This Fearful Town the other night after the Sunday Salon at Zirzamin. The nattily attired rocker  (black suit, porkpie hat, red tie for Valentine’s Day) embodies everything that’s good about un-trendy rock in this town. With Tommy Hochscheid’s Stax/Volt guitar and Patrick McLellan’s piano firing off savage ripples and rumbles over a swinging rhythm section, Murphy romped through a mix of his signature surreal, blues-infused, urbane urban narratives. They opened with the slinky menace of Another Lesson I Never Learned and encored with Barbed Wire Playpen, a rather gleefully scampering tale about a Wall Street one-percenter with a fondness for the dungeon. In between Murphy chronicled eerily delirious rust belt crowds dancing away their doom to a stripper-fronted jazz band, clueless bridge-and-tunnel happy hour crowds yucking it up, along with several postapocalyptic scenes and would-be stalkers contemplating their next moves or lack thereof. As much as Murphy’s white-knuckle intensity and goodnatured energy onstage are contagious, his songs are all ultimately in the here-and-now, and they don’t paint a pretty picture.

At Salon #13 the previous week, chanteuse Drina Seay aired out some new, torchy, sophisticated country tunes and then joined her brilliant lead guitarist, Homeboy Steve Antonakos, for a set of his own purist, sardonic janglerock and Americana songs, including some pensive tracks from his latest ep. Other highlights of the past couple of salons included angst-fueled Americana rock and southwestern gothic by the Downward Dogs’ Joe Yoga, gorgeously lyrical chamber pop and art-rock by Serena Jost, creepily gleeful murder ballads and jaunty original bluegrass/C&W by Kelley Swindall and mysterious blues-infused narratives (and a pretty hilarious Glimmer Twins interlude) by the Salon’s own Lauraly Grossman.

Susquehanna Industrial Tool & Die Co. have a monthly residency at Otto’s and a pretty much monthly, sometimes more than monthly gig at Rodeo Bar. Much as their satire of early 50s pre-rock hillbilly sounds is pretty hilarious – they’d kill on Broadway – their most recent gig on 14th Street was a reminder of just what a good straight-up country band these guys are, never mind the shtick. Michael McMahon’s a hell of a lead guitarist, with a snarling but sophisticated edge – and the band brought munchies, a big basket of snacks for every table. Thanks guys!

Among New York acts, nobody’s bigger in Peru than Chicha Libre. Which on face value seems pretty absurd, until you consider that they’re probably the world’s greatest psychedelic cumbia band. A lot of us take their weekly Monday residency/live rehearsal on their home turf at Barbes for granted, and we shouldn’t – they’ve never sounded more tight or energized, and they’ve been tight and energetic for years. A December show got shut down early because of a bass amp malfunction: bassist Nicholas Cudahy’s pulse is so subtle and simple and hypnotic, and so essential to the band. Too bad, because they had really been on a roll up to that point. A show in in the middle of last month was packed with dancers, and the band fed off the energy, romping through a mix of classic Peruvian covers and originals ranging from keyboardist Josh Camp’s creepy vamp Tres Pasajeros, to frontman Olivier Conan’s cynical, Gainsbourg-esque L’Age D’Or.

Out of print for years, the Mumbo Gumbo album is now available digitally (and streaming at co-frontman Joe Flood’s Bandcamp page). Last month, the band reunited for a one-off cd release show at Rodeo Bar. The crowd was a surreal mix of drunken Baruch kids and fans of Flood and accordionist Rachelle Garniez who’d come out to see them in their old Americana project, possibly for the first time. Word on the street is that the sonic issues that plagued the early part of the show were resolved as it went on. In the beginning, much as it was a pain to hear the band having to jostle with the crowd for volume, it was a lot of fun to be able to catch Garniez doing the enigmatic Swimming Pool Blue and the sly, innuendo-fueled New Dog with some old friends, more rustically and rawly than she usually does them. And Flood was on his game with his violin, and his guitar, and his big voice too.

Indie classical string quartet Ethel – which has undergone some personnel changes in recent months – has a weekly Friday night residency at the balcony bar at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. You can hear them as you walk in. On a dim, rainy evening, listening to the sound rise as you go up the stairs evokes a magical old-world Europe of the mind. To fully appreciate what they’re doing, you have to get closer to the action, i.e. along the rail where they’re playing in the bar space itself. A random, recent misty night found them inviting colleagues from other ensembles and exploring the classical and the baroque as well as the adventurous avant garde sounds which have come to define them. If the idea of the Kronos Quartet intrigues you but all the electronic bells and whistles leave you cold, this group will hit the spot.

Melvin Van Peebles has to be close to eighty now, but he still plays regularly with his psychedelic funk band Laxative, which includes members of Burnt Sugar. One of the final shows at Zebulon  before they closed their doors for good saw the mordantly funny indie filmmaker/personality in low-key, smoldering mode, bantering with the crowd and making his way through a sometimes wryly sexy, sometimes corrosive mix of tunes from his cult classic albums from the 70s. As usual, the band behind him – featuring bassist Jared Nickerson and baritone saxophonist Moist Paula Henderson – gave him a dynamically-charged groove to croon over.

Morricone Youth have a singer now. The elegant, darkly torchy presence of Karla Rose Moheno out in front of the cult favorite film soundtrack band has not only transformed their sound but also has opened up a whole different repertoire beyond the already vast Italian film themes that they’ve been mining since they were a mainstay on the Lower East Side about ten years ago. Their most recent show at Otto’s – yeah, this is going back a ways – featured a lot of unfamiliar material, some of it on the jazzy side, some with a lushly psychedelic rock feel. These days, when they’re not in Europe, they’re more likely to be playing a theatre than a rock club, which makes a lot of sense.

And it was good to catch a bit of energetic third-stream jazz group the Trio of Oz at one of those multi-act extravaganzas at the booking agents’ convention last month. Pianist Rachel Z is a force of nature, but she can be plaintive when the song calls for it. Her version of King of Pain far outdid the Police at brooding poignancy.

Much as the recent slate of shows has been a lot of fun, there have been some duds. That enticing, by-invitation-only multi-piano fest in midtown turned out to be a disappointment despite the starpower of the players involved, for lack of solid material: garbage in, garbage out, no matter how many fantastic fingers might be playing it. There was another show on the east side recently that promised to explore the apocalyptic effects of natural disasters: it turned out to be a Euro-jazz band vamping endlessly behind amateurish videos and awkward, stilted poetry. And another semi-recent show featuring a member of a famously creepy indie band turned out to be a lot more indie than creepy, a nonstop barrage of dorkiness from the wannabe bass player/composer whose spastic, sort-of-indie-classical, sort-of-indie-rock stuff was being put on display.

Molly Ruth: A Force of Nature at Sunday Salon 12

Molly Ruth sings with a wounded, raw but crystalline wail that will peel your skin. Sunday night at Zirzamin after the salon that this blog puts on every week, the charismatic songwriter left the crowd stunned and silent with her assaultive and wickedly catchy blend of oldtime acoustic blues, country and punk rock. Easy as it is to mix sex and religion for shock value, Molly Ruth does it as entertainingly as Tammy Faye Starlite. But Molly Ruth looks way back to guys like Blind Blake and before, sometimes mixing her metaphors, sometimes letting loose with a murderous exasperation. She barely said a word between songs, but she didn’t need to: her songs speak for themselves. Playing solo, she nonchalantly shifted between subtly fingerpicked blues, nimble ragtime, and a little straight-up country. The opening number, My Revelation’s Taking a Long Time to Come set the tone immediately. As funny as it was – “It may be little and weak, or it may break me into a million pieces,” she deadpanned – the not-so-hidden subtext that mingled with the mix of gospel and juicy innuendo was raw rage, the personal as political. Like a young Bob Dylan, she blends oldtime blues vernacular with a stream-of-consciousness surrealism. But she doesn’t rip off Dylan, lyrically or vocally, and she varied her vocals depending on the content of the song. She took that idea to its logical extreme on the night’s funniest number, where she played two characters, one more and more desperate for some kind of validation, the other sadistically playing oblivious and numb.

Maybe unintentionally, a bit of a Lucinda Williams vibe crept into the fullblown jealous insanity of the long, crescendoing punk-blues anthem A Million Fucking Whores (click the link above for a killer video from the Mercury Lounge last year). Ironically, the song that Molly Ruth belted the most intensely was a seemingly sincere, righteous (yeah, right) cover of Stand By Your Man. A casually biting fingerstyle blues sent her off searching for an alter ego who might have dropped everything and gone off to Africa “to escape expensive rent.” Loaded imagery – desolate extraterrestrial vistas, people cowering from some unnamed calamity or evil force, blood and guts and fire and brimstone – ran amok, but the plaintive, piercing way she delivered those scenes, they didn’t come across as over-the top. But they did pack a wallop. The narrator in the last song didn’t want to be cremated: she pleaded to be dismembered instead. And God, whatever he or it may be, was to be feared 24/7 –  for all the right reasons. Molly Ruth has been writing up a storm lately but hasn’t played a lot of shows (maybe that explains why) – she’ll be at Brooklyn Rod & Gun Club sometime in April.

Every Sunday at 5 PM, New York Music Daily presents the Sunday Salon at Zirzamin, where some of New York’s edgiest songwriters and musicians trade songs and cross-pollinate in the old Zinc Bar space at Houston and LaGuardia. There’s never a cover charge; the club has cheap beer, good Tex-Mex food, and the public is welcome to attend. Participation is by invitation only: you never know who might show up. The featured set at 7 PM this Sunday, Feb 3 is by brilliant guitarist and wry, purist Americana songwriter Homeboy Steve Antonakos.

Sunday Salons 9, 10 and 11: Going Full Throttle Now

Some of you might see the weekly calendar for New York Music Daily’s Sunday Salon  at Zirzamin here week after week and wonder what’s up with it. Obviously, some of you have been in the house, either performing or watching, so this is a shout-out to you for being there and supporting, as well as to the musicians who make it so much fun. Case in point: cellist Serena Jost, whose own music is elegant and nuanced to the nth degree, wailing and thrashing her way through a long improvised solo on an even longer Rick Snyder country blues ballad. Rachelle Garniez graced the stage with her wickedly subtle, edgy, occasionally gospel-flavored retro rock and soul; Martin Bisi brought his pedalboard and haunted the room with casually menacing, slowly unwinding Lynchian art-rock songs. Jon Ladeau brought his original, soulful oldtime Americana; Carol Lipnik wowed everybody with her four-octave vocal range and mysterious, mystical, phanstasmagorical material. LJ Murphy ,with his thousand-yard stare and withering, politically-fueled lyrics, and  Walter Ego, with his nimble basslines and tough stance on gun control have also made frequent appearances.

The featured sets after the salon give some of New York’s best invited performers an opportunity to take some chances and do some unexpected things in Zirzamin’s intimate space. For Lorraine Leckie and Her Demons, that meant pulling back a little on the Canadian gothic ferocity, putting her excellent drummer on cajon, letting guitar genius Hugh Pool work his quieter side (it’s true – such a thing exists) and exploring the secret corners of some of her louder, more glam or punk-inspired songs.

For Mark Sinnis, longtime leader of artsy, dark Americana rockers Ninth House, justifiably acclaimed for his solo “cemetery and western” Nashville gothic stylings, that meant a rare Manhattan performance with James Brown (one of the living James Browns) playing gorgoeusly retro rockabilly and country lines on his big Gretsch guitar, mingling with the virtuoso banjo intensity of Stephen Gara. With his big baritone voice, Sinnis often evokes Johnny Cash, with this project now more than ever. And this past Sunday, Tracy Island a.k.a. Liza Roure and Ian Roure from the Larch (and the late, great WonderWheels) romped through a hypnotically jangly, psychedelically edgy mix of old favorites and darker new material. Ian brought out his new pedalboard, chock full of old effects for fiery 80s-influenced solos and fills while Liza channeled her classical training into a rapturous take of Leonard Cohen’s Stories of the Street as well as cynical versions of originals like Where’s My Robot Maid, Land of Opportunity and a warmly evocative new song inviting everybody down to Freddy’s Bar in South Brooklyn for the Mermaid Parade afterparty.

Every Sunday at 5 PM, New York Music Daily presents the Sunday Salon at Zirzamin, where some of New York’s edgiest songwriters and musicians trade songs and cross-pollinate in the old Zinc Bar space at Houston and LaGuardia. There’s never a cover charge; the club has cheap beer, good Tex-Mex food, and the public is welcome to attend. Participation is by invitation only. The featured set at 7 PM this Sunday, Jan 27 is by charismatic, ferociously intense acoustic punk-blues songwriter Molly Ruth.

Sunday Salon 8: New Blood, Old Blood, Bloodbath?

Not quite. The final Sunday Salon of the year at Zirzamin featured both usual and unusual suspects. It was good to have Joe Yoga, frontman of the ferocious, southwestern gothic-tinged Downward Dogs join in and play a couple of songs, the first a fiery minor-key number that screamed out for a band behind him, the second somewhat more subdued. Carol Lipnik also contributed a couple of considerably quieter songs that were just as passionate in their enveloping, hypnotic lushness. Playing guitar, she kept time with an Indian ankle bracelet she’d picked up in Jackson Heights. And from a spectator’s perspective, maybe the most interesting moment of the evening happened off to the side, when those two artists joined in a spontaneous duet on the old Jefferson Airplane psych-folk song Coming Back to Me. Neither Carol Lipnik nor Joe Yoga sound anything like the Airplane; just to see that both of them knew the song was cool.

The rest of the salon was fueled by passion and booze. Lorraine Leckie sat on a table facing the crowd and channeled lurid menace, making the need for a mic redundant. LJ Murphy put on his thousand-yard stare, completely locked into showtime mode for the surreal nocturne Waiting by the Lamppost and the big crowd-pleaser Barbed Wire Playpen, a tale of Wall Street dungeons and dungeonesses. John Hodel represented for the oldschool barroom contingent with tales of sordidness and not a little menace. Homeboy Steve Antonakos then followed with a solid hour of solo acoustic songs ranging from gypsy rock – based on a Georges Brassens lick nicked from his old pal Joe Flood – to the surreal bluegrass ballad Baptized in Rain, to the wryly gorgeous janglerock hit I Don’t Miss Summer. Before his set, torchy Americana chanteuse Drina Seay joined him for a couple of catchy, sophisticated countrypolitan tunes. While Antonakos didn’t take any of the sizzling solos that he’s known for, as a member of psychedelic rockers Love Camp 7 or Greek rembetiko surf band the Byzan-Tones, he’d break up the songs with subtle changes in the chord voicings, or run a half a bar of a bluesy riff, or fingerpick delicate filigrees in the slower tunes. It was a clinic in purposeful, impactful playing. Antonakos returns to the featured slot here at 7 PM on Feb 3.

Every Sunday at 5 PM, New York Music Daily presents the Sunday Salon at Zirzamin, where some of New York’s edgiest songwriters and musicians trade songs and cross-pollinate in the old Zinc Bar space at Houston and LaGuardia. There’s never a cover charge; the club has cheap beer, good Tex-Mex food, and the public is welcome to attend. Participation is by invitation only. The featured set at 7 PM this Sunday, Jan 6 is by Canadian gothic rocker/chanteuse Lorraine Leckie.

Sunday Salons 6 and 7: Nocturnal Transcendence

New York Music Daily’s Sunday Salon series at Zirzamin took off slowly in the wake of the hurricane but hit a peak two weeks in a row, with transcendent sets from LJ Murphy and the Accomplices and then this past Sunday with Katie Elevitch and her equally intense, virtuosic band. Thanks to Maya Mitter, virtually all of Murphy’s careening set is up at youtube: it’s the NYC noir rock legend at the top of his game. He’s got a new album due out next year with many of these tracks on it; at this point, it looks like a lock for best of 2013.

This past Sunday, Elevitch brought her feral, sultry vocal power and often shatteringly cathartic, shamanic songwriting to the Salon. Swaying and shimmying in front of the band, she began with a couple of haunting new tracks and ended with a vividly wounded version of Corner of Love and Fear, a standout cut from her most recent album Kindling for the Fire. In between, playing acoustic guitar, she led the band through a swirling, improvisational cauldron of originals plus a couple of smartly chosen covers, a luminously hypnotic duet on Neil Young’s Birds with lead guitar genius Riley McMahon, and a little later a lusciously torchy take of Because the Night, by Patti Smith (an artist Elevitch is often aptly compared to).

Drummer Tim Vail felt the room and kept his accents nimble and subtle – this is an intimate space, and it took him only a few seconds to match up perfectly with the ambience. Bassist Pemberton Roach, one of this city’s most consistently interesting and original players, added all kinds of subtle colors as well: booming octaves, the occasional chord to drive a crescendo home, and on a long, epic, unearthly jam on Elevitch’s Oxbow Legacy, tuned way down to Plutonian sonics under McMahon’s searing, sunbaked atmospherics.

Although this show emphasized the darkly psychedelic rock aspect of Elevitch’s music, ultimately she’s a soul singer. She never sings a song remotely the same way twice, which is why she’s always worth seeing live, and this show was characteristic. Moving from an aching alto to stratospheric, angst-ridden highs that suddenly parted the clouds and brought the beams down, she held the crowd in the palm of her hand. Often she’ll take a lyric and make a mantra out of it, as she did with one of the evening’s best songs, the offhandedly savage Man Boy Numb, a new number from her soon-to-be-released new album. She did the same with Hurt People, a relentless, hard-hitting track from the Kindling album a bit later on. Having survived a brush with death when the hurricane knocked a tree over on her house a couple of weeks ago, that song took on a special resonance, and an unlikely triumph. Watch this space for news about the upcoming album which promises to be equally intense.

Before the show, the Sunday Salon mixed usual suspects along with some welcome new participants: highlights included a raw, fiery, completely unplugged mini-set from unstoppable Canadian gothic rocker Lorraine Leckie and some intriguing gypsy-tinged chamber pop from the duo of Kotorino’s Jeff Morris and Sweet Soubrette’s Elia Bisker. The Sunday Salon continues this Dec 23 at 5 PM followed by a 7 PM set by brilliant guitarist Homeboy Steve Antonakos.

Sunday Salon #5 – Raw and Primal

The Sunday Salon at Zirzamin was conceived not as a stuffy, formal setting for songwriters to gently and daintily introduce new material but as a platform for risky behavior and fertile cross-pollination. There wasn’t much of the latter but plenty of the former at tonight’s show. Guitar virtuoso Homeboy Steve Antonakos, who’ll be playing a set of his own at 7 PM here on Dec 23, provided a handful of catchy numbers: he’s the rare sideman who actually writes as interestingly as he plays. Among the highlights: a sarcastic Christmas song where Santa’s HMO is letting him down, and Antonakos’ first number, a delicious janglerock gem that wouldn’t be out of place in the Love Camp 7 catalog (a band he just happens to play in).

Otherwise, Rick Snyder told funny road stories about driving through the south, and represented for the 99%. John Hodel evoked surreal Bukowskiesque morning barroom scenes. The Salon’s own Lauraly Grossman sang a couple of subtly torchy, allusively literate, oldtime swing-flavored tunes. Calum Ingram and his trio played slinky blues-funk, his cello blending with his excellent bassist’s vintage SG model for a tasty mix of low midrange tones. And LJ Murphy – who’s playing here at 7 PM with his band the Accomplices this coming Sunday, Dec 9 – took the opportunity to reinvent a handful of his noir classics, among them the snide afterwork scenario Happy Hour and the subtly soul-infused Sleeping Mind, a powerful portrait of clinical depression. Like most of the musicians on the bill, Murphy is a band guy – the Salon isn’t a singer-songwriter scene, at least in the common sense of the term – so watching him snarl through the tunes and strip them down to their raw blues framework, all by himself, was a lot of fun.

Afterward, Lorraine Leckie and Her Demons played an even more careening, umhinged set. Leckie’s latest project is an elegant chamber-pop collaboration with journalist and social critic Anthony Haden-Guest, which somewhat obscures the fact that her roots go straight back to punk rock. This set was more Canadian gothic than punk, courtesy of lead guitarist Hugh Pool. Fueled by a nasty bump on the head (most clubs aren’t built to accommodate players with NBA height), a broken string and then a brand-new secondhand guitar with a mind of its own, he scorched and burned through one series of wildfire hammer-ons after another, mixing in the occasional wry Hendrix quote over the tight groove of bassist J Wallace and the excellent drummer, who to his credit felt the intimate space and didn’t bludgeon the room.

Leckie started the show solo on piano with a coy noir cabaret song about drug smuggling and then moved to guitar, for a couple of pretty savage glamrock tunes and then Ontario Sky, an aggressively ambiguous look back at growing up in rural Canada. Regrouping after one technical difficulty after another, they finally took it out with a a new song that wound up with long, burning, Neil Young/Crazy Horse style vamp. Leckie will be back here on Jan 6 at 7.

Every Sunday starting at 5 PM, New York Music Daily presents the Sunday Salon at Zirzamin, in the old Zinc Bar space on Houston St. just west of LaGuardia Place. There’s no cover charge, and the public is always welcome to come and watch. LJ Murphy and the Accomplices rock the club this coming Sunday Dec 9 at 7 to wind up the Salon on a high note.